Before Matt Grimes, Head of DEI for the Cleveland Guardians, even began his presentation, he invited the audience to pay respect with a land acknowledgement, a formal statement that recognizes Indigenous peoples as the traditional stewards of the land upon which we stand.
“Let us acknowledge the Indigenous people who first called present day Northeast Ohio home,” Grimes began. “We express our gratitude and appreciation to those who lived and worked here before us.” He continued to list the names of many tribes native to this region including the Lanape, the Shawnee, the Wyandot as well as the thousands of Native Americans who still call Northeast Ohio home. We extended our collective gratitude not only for the beautiful practice, but for the opportunity to gather.
As the majority of Americans pause this week to celebrate Thanksgiving, and as we’ve reflected upon Native voices reading poetry during Morning Meeting in honor of Native American Heritage Month, we understand as an intellectual community that our relationship with the Native individuals in this country is fraught with violence, oppression and tragedy.
“If you came to our ballpark anytime between the 1970s and a couple years ago…there were protests from Native and local Indigenous groups about our team name and how the name Indian perpetuated a number of stereotypes against a certain race.” The game of baseball, Grimes shared, is meant to unite and inspire, to bring people together. And yet in Cleveland, our team name and mascot perpetuated stereotypes, misrepresented an entire race of people and only served to divide.
In 2019, the team announced that they would be retiring Chief Wahoo. But then Grimes spoke of the summer of 2020, the death of George Floyd, the Black Lives Matter protests that united and inspired so many, and yet continued to divide our country. “Many organizations, ourselves included, really had to take an introspective look at ourselves. Are we living up to our purpose? We started to think more about how we could use our platform for change.”
In the summer of 2021, the Cleveland Guardians announced their new name. With the help of Tom Hanks. Sounds simple, right? And yet Grimes shared the process — the 40,000 fans surveyed over six months, the influencers, civic leaders, government officials, season ticket holders, the local families approached, focus groups, marketing plans, hundreds of hours of brainstorming, 1,200 possible new name options (including the Spiders, the Blues and the Rockers!). The thoughtful year-long process that would hopefully address over 50 years of damage. “We wanted a name that we could be proud of, that didn’t [inspire] protests on the corner, that we felt like everyone could be a part of,” Grimes said. “Our goal more than anything is to make sure that everyone feels like they’re connected to our baseball team and that they feel like they belong in our ballpark.”
But what about the protests on the other side? What about the challenge that comes with change? “When we first announced [the name change], we received so many letters, hate mail, threats to our owner and myself. People were really unhappy.” In Grimes’ line of work — diversity, equity and inclusion work — he’s in the business of connection, of listening, sharing and seeking to understand. “My job is to call people into this work and not call them out for their beliefs…our leaders in the organization had to be bold and courageous.”
Grimes said his work goes well beyond a name change. Becoming the Cleveland Guardians is only the beginning of the story, because as the critics like to point out, changing a name isn’t going to solve all of the problems. “It was a really good first step,” Grimes said. Local Indigenous groups said they never thought Cleveland would make the change, that they needed time to process and determine how to best partner with the Cleveland Guardians. “There are over 1,200 high school names in the United States that still have racist mascots.” Grimes said, summarizing the directive of the indigenous groups. “Tell our story. Influence high schools and colleges out there to consider listening and working with local tribes who are impacted.”
The Guardians also continue to collect data. “If you really look around to see who’s coming to our ballpark, it’s families. It’s usually white families. Upper to middle class white families. So we wanted to figure out what it would take to expand our fan base to historically underrepresented groups.” The Guardians hosted their first Pride Night this past June, a Hispanic Heritage celebration in September and the focus is on making intentional connections with local schools, groups, highlighting and supporting the underrepresented. “We believe the best way that we can contribute to this movement is by elevating and amplifying stories. We will use our platform, our scoreboard, our media to make sure we’re sharing the stories of people who are really contributing to this region.”
That mission is what brought Matt Grimes to Western Reserve Academy in the first place. Who better to affect change than young people? (Especially the dynamic young people in our community whose questions following the presentation were thoughtful and profound!) The way forward looks like honoring the past and lighting the future. The work our Cleveland baseball team has accomplished over their rich history is not forgotten, but growth means finding better ways to honor.
“When we talk about loyalty, we have people who have been fans of all our sports teams for so long when we’re doing really well and sometimes when we’re not. But what we know to be true is that fans keep coming back again and again. Resiliency is the ability to get back up when we’re knocked down.” The Guardians, one of the youngest teams in the Major League, rose to the challenge this year wearing their new name with pride, not to mention delivering a thrilling season. They fought for Cleveland and did exactly what the entire sport of baseball is designed to do: unite and inspire, this time without commodifying the identity of the people who were here first.