It’s a busy spring for the Cleveland Guardians — both Cleveland Guardians.
Yes, the Guardians baseball team plays the Seattle Mariners on March 30. But the original Guardians — the scrappy local men’s roller derby team founded 10 years ago — is also back for its first season since the coronavirus pandemic. The team's home opener against the Detroit Riot lands at 3 p.m., May 20 at the team's new venue, the Cleveland Heights Community Center.
It also marks the team’s first real season since its run-in with Major League Baseball, when, in 2021, Cleveland's baseball team claimed the name the derby team had been using for years.
“Wait, there’s a baseball team called the Guardians?” asks Jeremy Copeck, with a laugh.
Copeck, who plays under the name Zero, is the Guardians’ team captain, plus its director of roller derby operations, plus its inter-league coordinator. He’s been playing and refereeing roller derby since 2011 for teams in Detroit and Cleveland. Things slowed down and came to a halt during the pandemic. Now, after a few years of limited practices and bouts, the Guardians derby team comes back in a big way.
“We can actually have a season this year, with home games,” Copeck says, “and show them who the Cleveland Guardians are.”
Both the 25-person Guardians team and the robust 60-person women’s team, Burning River, return to the rink this spring. They’ve been practicing together since mid-2022.
On a January weekday at Euclid’s Pla-Mor rink, before the season officially starts, both new and established players run drills and practice skating styles, decked out in helmets, wrist guards, knee guards and mouthguards. Names like “Hell No Kitty,” “Gal Fawkes,” “Sicko Mode,” “Frank N Hurter” and “Wickedpedia” zip around the oval, as they practice hip-whips, apex jumps and jammer drills. Sometimes they’re gracefully swerving around each other. Sometimes they’re smacking into each other in nonviolent collisions. Sometimes a skater falls down to the ground, quick to return to their feet.
“The first thing we teach our new skaters is how to fall. We want them to do it safely, and you’re gonna do it the whole time,” says Alexandria Perez, aka Winona Spider, a Burning River skater and leader of the Skater Tots program for new skaters. “How to stop, and how to fall, before they even skate.”
Here at practice, the two teams weave together. The delineation between “men’s team” and “women’s team” labels seem to apply more to playing style than members’ gender identities. Men, women, nonbinary and transgender skaters play for the Guardians, a team registered with the Men’s Roller Derby Association. Meanwhile women, nonbinary and transgender skaters play for Burning River, a league registered with the Women’s Flat Track Derby Association.
“We have a pretty fluid gender policy for both leagues,” Perez explains. “However you identify, there’s a spot in roller derby for you, for sure.”
“Derby in general is a very progressive and forward sport,” Copeck adds. “Part of when the Guardians baseball team thing happened, we had a large amount of support from the roller derby community, who really rallied for us because we were the small guy. ... We all rallied together.”
Back to that “baseball team thing” — both Copeck and the Guardians’ newest team member Sam, aka Wickedpedia, didn’t share too much about the legal scuffle between the two Cleveland sports organizations. According to court records, the Guardians roller derby team filed a lawsuit against the MLB team over copyright infringement on Oct. 27, 2021, and it was later dismissed on Nov. 22, 2021.
“I wasn’t behind the scenes. I don’t know the details of it,” Copeck says. “Essentially, it started out as the baseball team wanting to have the name. There had to be negotiations to work together and make sure we could operate in parallel.”
An agreement was reached: the two Guardians teams would use the name independently. Furthermore, the derby team maintained its URL, clevelandguardians.com, and its social media handles: @clevelandguardians. (The baseball team took @cleguardians, and cleguardians.com redirects to its MLB website.)
The whole thing made headlines around the world, bringing this niche, nonprofit sports organization into the spotlight. After the MLB team announced its “Guardians” name change on July 23, 2021, the derby team’s website crashed from an influx of visitors. According to the derby team’s lawsuit, the website went from a few dozen daily visits to 180,000 visits in a nine-hour span.
“A lot of my friends in town, before I started playing derby, that was the first time they heard of derby,” says Melanie Moore, aka Frank N Hurter, a Burning River skater. “That maybe put it on the radar for a lot of people.”
Now, more than a year and a half later, things aren’t too bitter between the teams. If anything, the event gave a little more attention to Cleveland’s roller derby scene.
“It’s an ‘Any news is good news’ situation,” Copeck says. “We want to use it in a positive way — to own it. And to use it to get people to know the sport more.”
Roller derby itself is a sanctioned contact sport, where each team designates one jammer to skate laps around the competing team. That team must block opposing jammers and assist their own jammers.
Perez mentioned the derby-focused movie Whip It as a motivating factor for signing up. Moore met a roller derby team while working at a bar in Michigan and got into the sport while in college. Copeck joined after a college friend recommended the sport, while Sam says he stumbled across derby through a Wikipedia article (hence the name “Wickedpedia”).
Now, both Burning River and the Guardians are facing the same challenge: recruitment. The pandemic brought each team’s numbers down when some players moved away from Cleveland or moved on from the sport. Both teams will host a new Skater Tots training program on March 19 for interested skaters, who can find contact info at both clevelandguardians.com and burningriverderby.com.
“Once lockdown stopped, when we came back, it was a very different league because of the different faces, and we had a lot of new skaters,” Perez says. “We had to not start from the ground up, but definitely we started rebuilding our league again.”
“We have a bunch of new skaters here for the first time learning the skills, and a bunch of skaters who have been doing it for a while but also hadn’t done it for almost two years,” Moore adds. “So we’re really picking it all back up together. Personally, I think it made us a really close-knit group. It really brought a lot of unity and excitement for everyone.”
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