There’s a person standing on the other side of that word. Of that symbol. Of that name. There are lots of people there.
After a while, after long enough, maybe that gets worn away. Maybe nobody cared enough to look to begin with. So, from the places where we hide, the name, the word, comes to mean less. Worse, it comes to mean a baseball team.
So it becomes a few letters across the chest of a jersey.
Maybe for a summer or two. Then it’s the length of a childhood, the letters themselves, what we think they stand for, extending those summers to decades, and then to a lifetime. It’s just a word, a way to tell ours from theirs. We’re Indians. They’re Astros or Yankees or Dodgers. And what are Astros or Yankees or Dodgers? Words from yesterday. A name to put on a cap that distinguishes them from us. Something for the billboards and pennants. Something to sell at the team store that doesn’t look like them, but us.
Just some colors. Some guys who come and go and wear the colors for a paycheck. A guy in the top row of the bleachers with a drum. A derogatory Bugs Bunny caricature to appeal to the kids. A made-up story about someone who used to play here.
And a word.
A word we read right over because it’s always been there. For all those summer nights. Where we left it, where it always would be, the letters on the chest of some damn baseball team. Like an appliance. As though the threads holding those letters couldn’t be undone, because why would you, it’s just a baseball team. Just a word. No harm intended.
Well, we, many of us, don’t get to decide. Or haven’t the past months, the past decades, the past centuries, the conversations of the past summer in particular, counted for even that? You know who doesn’t consider it just a word? Native Americans. You know who shouldn’t think of it as just a word, just a mascot, just a baseball team? Everyone else. It’s lazy. It’s dismissive. It’s unkind. And that’s about the best that could be said of it.
So they’ll go get another word. Finally.
Four days ago, the Cleveland Indians announced they’d give their team name one more whirl around the league before changing it. Terry Francona, a 61-year-old man who played a season as an Indian and has managed the past eight seasons as an Indian, whose father was for six seasons an Indian, several months ago had observed, “I think it’s time to move forward.” On Friday, he seemed pleased the organization had inched ahead on that, having committed to a day in the future when the Cleveland franchise was not as lazy, not as dismissive, not so unkind.
“The organization has done many, many things to listen to people and to try to understand, which I think we’ve all said early on we needed to do,” he said. “I think [team chairman and CEO] Paul Dolan came out early on and said he really wanted to listen. And that’s what the leaders in our organization did.
“We always said we didn’t ever want to be disrespectful. But I think we found in 2020 that just saying that wasn’t correct anymore. And so regardless of how we felt about it, what was really ultimately most important is how other people that it was affecting felt about it. So as an organization, we do what we always try to do, to do the right thing. I’m really proud of our organization for trying to do the right thing.”
A lot of people over a lot of years had the opportunity for the same. One of the least perfect parts of this is measuring progress, even assuming progress, and so what’s left are today’s deeds, then tomorrow’s. In Cleveland time, that’ll be about a year.
“I just think by simply saying, ‘Hey, we’ve always done it this way, so we’ll just continue to,’ shoot if we did that, Jackie Robinson may have never played in the game of baseball,” Francona said. “Again, nobody was ever trying to be disrespectful. But that wasn’t a good enough answer anymore. That’s the way I look at it.”
So maybe that’s where the next conversation starts, about the people on the other side of the word, the assumption, the history, the raised fist and the extended hand. About what we’re doing to each other. About how we answer the question, “Is this right?” or if we ask it at all. It wasn’t ever a good enough answer, of course, and just understanding that will have to do for progress today. There were always people on the other side of the word. The name. There was always a way to see them.
“I think this year was probably an epiphany for a lot of people,” Francona said. “When you see some of the things that were happening, I think it made a lot of people step back and rethink some things that maybe we took for granted. Or that we shouldn’t take for granted. I’ve gotten a lot of mail. For the very most part, people are extremely conscientious and thoughtful in their words. … I would hope those people would try to understand, we’re trying to be respectful. We’re not trying to be disrespectful. That’s the best way I can answer it.”
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