CLEVELAND — For decades, Cleveland’s home opener has been celebrated like a national holiday. Kids skip school, office workers clear out early and people flock downtown to welcome baseball back after another long winter.
It’s long been a day in Cleveland for renewal, hope. A fresh start.
Never more so than this year.
On Friday, the renamed Guardians will play for the first time at Progressive Field, officially launching a new era for a team known as the Indians since 1915 before a long-debated and fan-dividing name change finally happened last year.
There will be plenty of cheers, and perhaps some grumbling from those still coming to grips with the idea that their favorite baseball team isn’t quite the same,
“We know this is going to take time. Change is always hard,” said Alex King, the Guardians’ senior vice president of marketing and strategy who spearheaded the name transition. “Change of a team name that has been around for 100-plus years and everyone has grown up with, shared memories with – that’s incredibly hard.
“We not only understand that. We empathize with that and we want to try and build new memories, but do it in a way that’s meeting our fans where they’re at.”
Some of those memories begin taking form on Friday when Oscar winner Tom Hanks, who cut his acting teeth in this city while becoming a fan of the team in the 1970s, tosses a ceremonial first pitch to Larry Doby Jr., whose father broke the American League’s color barrier with Cleveland 75 years ago.
There will be a jet flyover and players for the Guardians and San Francisco Giants will all wear No. 42 as Major League Baseball celebrates Jackie Robinson Day.
And if that wasn’t enough to kick start a holiday weekend, the NBA’s Cavaliers, who live a relay throw across the plaza at Rocket Mortgage FieldHouse, will host a play-in game against Atlanta with the winner getting a postseason spot.
If not for baseball’s 99-day labor lockout pushing the opener back two weeks, the day would belong exclusively to the Guardians, who have won four straight games and have one of baseball’s best early season stories in rookie outfielder Steven Kwan, off to an historic start to his career.
Kwan is certain to receive a rousing ovation from the 29th consecutive opening-day sellout crowd, one that was slower to buy tickets in previous years for a variety of reasons, including the name change.
It’s been a challenging journey for Cleveland’s franchise, which has received its share of criticism – especially on social media – for the switch from those who felt the team caved to a vocal minority. The ballclub had already ditched the divisive Chief Wahoo logo and was working toward making a name change when the national reckoning on race in 2020 accelerated the process.
The team considered numerous names before landing on Guardians, which is meant to symbolize community strength and is a nod to massive, Art Deco statues that flank the Hope Memorial Bridge near the ballpark.
There were other obstacles, including the team being sued by a local roller derby team of the same name.
And while Guardians remains difficult for some to accept, and isn’t exactly rolling off everyone’s tongues just yet, it seems to be catching on.
That doesn’t mean there isn’t lingering backlash.
Whenever the team posts anything on its Twitter account, it’s usually met with a barrage of complaints and worse. The negativity prompted Christy Harst to post a YouTube video reminding fans why they became fans and encouraging them to accept the change.
“It made me sad,” said the mother of two and voice-over actress. “I felt like I wanted to remind my fellow fans why we’re fans. Do I understand people’s frustration? Absolutely. There’s no name that could make everyone happy. None.
“No matter what they named the team, people would be upset.”
The team has sought to find the right balance between embracing the club’s past, and not erasing it.
“The name Indians is always going to be a part of our history,” King said, “All of those great teams in the 1990s, the ’07 (World Series) run, the ’16 World Series, the Rajai Davis home run, those are going to be Indians memories.
“Those won’t diminish. They’re not going to change. The most important part of our name, as we’ve talked, about is Cleveland. We’ve tried to remind people that we’ve got these really strong roots. We’re not inventing something different. We’re evolving and this is the next chapter.”
Harst trusts that Cleveland fans, even the ones wrestling with the change, will eventually come around. After all, they’ve endured plenty of heartbreak; this isn’t nearly as painful as when the Browns left.
“Everyone was bitter, spitting nails back then,” she said. “Do we feel that way now with the name change? C’mon. That was a lot worse as a Cleveland sports fan. Let’s put things into perspective.”