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Columbus fans could learn from Cleveland

When you want to appeal to people, eventually you ditch the troublesome mascot.

The new name for the Cleveland Indians is from the “Guardians of Traffic,” Art Deco pylons that adorn on a bridge there. The fans of Christopher Columbus might learn something from the situation.
The new name for the Cleveland Indians is from the “Guardians of Traffic,” Art Deco pylons that adorn on a bridge there. The fans of Christopher Columbus might learn something from the situation.
Neil Steinberg/Sun-Times

Someone named Natalie at something called “SeatGeek” sent me an email offering White Sox tickets for Friday’s game against the Cleveland Indians. I blinked at it.

“Didn’t they change their name to the ‘Guardians?’” I wondered. Yes they did, but only after this season. Ah.

Sure, I could get all sentimental about a century of baseball tradition being scrapped. Weep how I loved Chief Wahoo as a child and, to be honest, still do. How my mother was an Indians fan, my grandfather before her.

But you know what? Truth is, I’m an adult now, and understand the world is not all about me. I have my own sense of self-worth, one not dependent on the icons of my youth being carried into perpetuity on the shoulders of the public, like plaster saints borne aloft in some dusty village procession. Times change. Certain stereotypes fly in 2021 while others do not. I can’t explain why the Fighting Irish Leprechaun is OK while Chief Wahoo isn’t.

Though I can try: It has something to do with the Irish coming here and doing pretty well, eventually, while the Native Americans already were here and didn’t do well at all, not once the white newcomers were done with them. I bet if no Irish Catholics actually attended the University of Notre Dame, its pugnacious mascot would be seen in a very different light.

Still, when I heard Cleveland is changing the name to “Guardians,” I winced. Leave it to Cleveland to pick a dud. I had been pulling for “Spiders.” It’s such a cool name, with roots — Cleveland was the Spiders before it was the Indians. And I’d been to the University of Richmond, and was so impressed with its way-cool Spiders mascot I almost bought a Spiders t-shirt.

But the Guardians? What’s that? There was that movie with the raccoon, “Guardians of the Galaxy.” And ... what else? Guardian ad litem, the attorney a court orders to make sure children or seniors aren’t being abused by those tasked with their care. Important, but not something to put on a sweatshirt.

The rationale is that the statues on Cleveland’s Hope Memorial Bridge are called the Guardians of Traffic. I grew up next to Cleveland, and they’re not exactly beloved civic icons. Heck, I didn’t make the connection, and I’ve been on the bridge relatively recently, in 2016, when the paper sent me to cover the Republican Party’s coronation of Donald Trump. A protest by medical personnel decrying his malignancy was shunted across the mile-long bridge to keep it contained. Marchers literally could not detour from their route without falling to their death.

Protesters flow between the Guardians of Traffic pylons on the Hope Memorial Bridge during the Republican National Convention in Cleveland in 2016.
Photo by Neil Steinberg

Sure, I noticed the things; hard to miss a quartet of 43-foot pylons, each with a pair of Art Deco figures, each holding a means of transportation — a wagon, a truck, a 1930s-era car.

“Guardians of Traffic,” sounds like the worst Marvel superheroes movie ever, a bush league Avengers where Saltman leaps to de-ice highways and The Signal projects flashing lights upon the back end of cars changing lanes.

A neutral term for a team. Isn’t that what you want? A name without many associations, upon which the club can imprint its identity. Now they can play ball without kicking over the bucket of America’s murderous past. Won’t that be nice?

I shouldn’t have to point out the obvious, but sometimes that’s my job. A segment of Chicago’s Italian American community, straddling the loathsome corpse of Christopher Columbus, pressing on its chest, hissing, “Breathe, damn you!” should stop, look up, brush a sweaty strand of hair from their face, gaze at Cleveland, and think. This is what you do when you’ve lost a cultural battle and have a financial stake. If it’s not your dime, sure, pump away. But if you need to sell tickets, eventually you give in.

Remember, everybody is free to venerate whomever they like. I could light incense before a Chief Wahoo bobblehead. No one cares. This is about bullying others to show deference to your hero. Italian American identity isn’t bound up in Columbus any more than Donald Trump actually cares about Cleveland. “Such a disgrace,” he sighed.

Do I need to point out that the Trumpy, Fraternal-Order-of-Police elements of Chicago’s Italian American community are the ones going all out for Christopher Columbus? Maybe they really do love him.