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What the Cleveland Indians Lose with Their Name Change

A young Cleveland Indians fan waits for autographs before a 2016 playoff game at Progressive Field in Cleveland, Ohio. (Rick Osentoski/USA TODAY Sports)

When I was six years old, my father gave me my late grandfather’s Cleveland Indians hat. My grandfather had died earlier that year and my dad found it while looking through his belongings. It was musty from sitting in his mildew-ridden basement for decades. I actually kind of liked the smell.

It was a wool hat. Manufacturers today only offer wool hats as a novelty item for nostalgic fans. In the 1950s, heat-retaining wool was all there was. It had an oversized Chief Wahoo on the front, featuring the Chief’s toothy and perennially controversial grin. The sight and smell of it reminded me of my grandfather.

Even though I spent my childhood in Connecticut, I rooted for the Indians. After the Whalers left Hartford, there were no major in-state sports teams to root for. Kids at school often chose their favorite teams on the basis of popular players or team success. I figured my grandfather’s hat was as good a reason as any to pick the Indians.

My dad and I would watch the Indians whenever they came on television, which, in Connecticut, was rare. More often, I’d spend nights on the one family desktop watching the score change on the Internet. I did my part as a fan, even if the Indians players rarely did theirs.

The Indians teams I grew up watching were always eccentric, if mediocre — the roster in the mid-2000s featured C. C. Sabathia, who looked like a run-blocking right tackle on the mound; Fausto Carmona, an upstart right-hander who doctored his birth certificate; Travis Hafner, a plodding first baseman who looked and played like a lumberjack. I was enamored of the team. For a few weeks in elementary school, I rendered my name “Jhonny” on my homework in a nod to Indians shortstop Jhonny Peralta. My parents didn’t allow that habit to persist.

For most of my childhood, the Indians were good enough to stick in the playoff race in the pedestrian American League Central but never good enough to win a World Series. I liked it that way. Heartbreak and disappointment are essential parts of sports fandom. Being an Indians fan gave me a healthy dose of both.

I’m sad the Indians are changing their name. Nicknames help to make a team more than a collection of athletes. Logos and branding tie a team’s past to its present. They connect generations of fans.

Growing up, I could wear my grandfather’s Indians hat and watch Grady Sizemore patrol center field in the same. I could wear a shirt with the Indians’ script and see Cliff Lee stare down a batter donning the same. However crude, the Native-American iconography — from the drum that played at Jacobs Field to the Chief Wahoo signs that littered the ballpark — were essential parts of Indians fandom that the new “Guardians” name will never be able to replace.

I knew the Indians were going to change their logo after commissioner Rob Manfred pressured the team to drop it to help the league build “a culture of diversity and inclusion,” which is an irresistible demand. As the controversy brewed, I made sure to buy a few Chief Wahoo hats for posterity.

I lost my grandfather’s hat while I was a teenager. I’ve looked for it to no avail ever since. I plan on leaving one of the new hats in the rain. I owe my future grandson a musty Chief Wahoo cap.

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