Monday, January 29, 2018

Bye Chief Bye

It's official:  the Cleveland Indians are saying goodbye to Chief Wahoo in the 2019 season.

The news is just now breaking and I am one fan who is happy to hear it.  I've spent the last year or so slowly but surely discarding my Indians gear that prominently displays the Chief and have not bought any new Indians gear in well over a year that has him on it.  I still have a few things, don't get me wrong:  my favorite couch blanket is patterned with Chief Wahoo and my slouchy old size XXL Indians hooded sweatshirt that I've had since high school is folded neatly on my bed at this moment.  Many of the "official" Cleveland Indians t-shirts, tank tops, and hoodies that I own have tiny Chiefs on them.  It's complicated terrain when the team you love has this sort of controversial symbol.  How do I support the team without running into the stickiness of what it means to have that red face grinning on a piece of clothing that I'm wearing?  I've solved that issue the best I can by limiting my Chief Wahoo consumption.  It's an imperfect science.

Growing up in Northeast Ohio, I never thought twice about the Chief one way or the other.  He was merely a logo, a piece of the uniform of the home team that I'd root root root for.  He was never treated in a derogatory way by local fans or media, so it never occurred to me that he might be a problem.  I remember going to Indians games as a child and seeing a small group of Native Americans protesting outside the ballpark and wondering why they had an issue.  It was so embedded in regional culture that I never saw it with the fresh eyes of an outsider.  It's normal, right?  Here in Cleveland, we love the Chief.  Easy as that.

Then in 2002, I moved to Boston, Massachusetts, and my shift to city life altered my perspective.  When I'd go to Fenway Park to see my team play, the Chief Wahoo logo started to stick out like a sore thumb next to the innocuous pair of red and white socks on the caps of Boston fans.  It started to stir something uncomfortable in my gut as I opted to buy the "Cursive I" fitted hat instead of the one with the traditional logo.  

I still have that hat -- it's old and gross and smells, kinda.  I should replace it soon and when I do, it'll be for one with the "Block C."  Even before the news of this big branding change for my team, I've been moving in this direction.

I know there are fans out there who don't see the Chief as a big deal or a problem or who would gladly argue all day about the historic legacy of the logo.  I know there are fans who love the Chief like he was one of their family members.  I don't know a single fan who thinks the Chief belittles Native Americans or Native American culture.  I don't know a single fan who supports the Chief because he can be construed in racist overtones.  So if he's loved and cherished and part of this franchise's tradition, why is the Cleveland front office "caving"?

I don't believe they are caving.  I believe they are making the absolute right decision.  And I think it's about goddamn time.

I would also not be opposed to them outright changing the team's name -- but first we take one step, then the other.

And here's why I am so agreeable:  I want it to be about the baseball not about anything else.

Living in Boston as I do -- and traveling around the country as I have -- it's never fun to have someone give me a hard time about something like my favorite thing in the world's name or logo.  People have walked away disgusted that I support an organization that allows this public disrespect of Native American culture and I'm left sputtering a, "But, but but....I just like the baseball..." without really knowing how to answer their call to action about something I agree with.  I don't love that my team is called the Indians -- I don't love that Chief Wahoo is the symbol of that team.  But I am guilty of supporting Cleveland baseball -- by whatever name you like to call it.

When I was an undergraduate at Kent State University (right after a glorious run of Indians baseball in the mid-to-late-90's), Sandy Alomar Jr., former catcher and one of my favorite all-time players, came to do a little Q&A on campus.  I remember sitting in that audience, starstruck, when the question about the Chief Wahoo debate came up.  Someone asked Sandy what he thought about removing Chief Wahoo from the uniforms, and I so vividly remember his response.  Leaned back in his chair, he chuckled and said, "I don't care.  They could put my face on the hats as far as I'm concerned..."  What I think he meant was that his job was to catch the ball and call the pitches.  Once every nine batters, he had to try and hit the ball, too.  He wasn't too wrapped up in the controversy of the logo.  And that was probably in the year 2000.  So many great players have worn Chief Wahoo on their caps and sleeves.  So many leaders in the sport have sat in that Cleveland dugout.  And they, like many of the fans who love them, haven't really wanted to think too much about what accepting this logo really means.

For this fan, letting the Chief go means looking towards the future, where the quality of play is what's at stake, not a political debate about branding -- and a debate about branding that Cleveland baseball is clearly in the wrong about, anyway.  

So bye, Chief, bye.  You should have left long ago.  Enjoy your retirement -- you've earned it.  While I believe many loved you in earnest, it's often the kindest thing to let those things go when they are no longer serving you.  I look forward to Cleveland baseball's future...  and secretly hope they do put Sandy Alomar Jr.'s face on the hats for generations to come.