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HAMMOND CHIEFS ENTER A NEW ERA

Friday, June 10, 2011 • POSTED BY:  Mike Clark Post-Tribune correspondent

For the first time since they began play in 1991, the Hammond Chiefs haven't set reaching the Senior Babe Ruth World Series as their primary goal.

The reason is simple. After 20 successful seasons of affiliation with Babe Ruth Baseball - including 10 World Series berths and the 2003 national championship - the team for 17 and 18-year-olds has cut ties with the organization. The Chiefs, who opened their season this week, are now affiliated with the American Amateur Baseball Congress (AABC) and Continental Amateur Baseball Association (CABA).

The Chiefs' departure from Babe Ruth came after they and Noblesville were both removed from last year's Ohio Valley Regional in Dodgeville, Wis., following a dispute over an umpire's obstruction call that led to the ejection of the entire Hammond coaching staff and an on-field altercation.

Chiefs founder and manager Dave Sutkowski assumed at the time the sanctions against his team and Noblesville would be limited to their removal from the 2010 playoffs. But he said he was told by Babe Ruth officials last winter that the Chiefs also would be ineligible for postseason play in 2011. Noblesville was placed on probation, but remained eligible for the playoffs.

Sutkowski unsuccessfully appealed the postseason ban, and, he said, "in the meantime, we started looking around" for other options.

The playoff issue was the catalyst for the Chiefs' split with Babe Ruth, but it wasn't the sole reason. The Seminoles, the Chiefs' feeder team for 16-year-olds, had left for the AABC a few years earlier because of the scarcity of competition at that age group in Babe Ruth ball.

Sutkowski saw the same problem developing at the regional level in the 17-18 division. While the Ohio Valley Regional is ostensibly a 10-team tourney with teams from seven states ranging from West Virginia to Wisconsin, last year's event had just nine clubs - including four from Indiana and three from Wisconsin. Michigan, Ohio and West Virginia's berths all went unfilled.

"You didn't know what teams were coming and what teams weren't," Sutkowski said.

One thing the Chiefs already know is their postseason destination. CABA officials have the option of offering national tourney berths to established programs, and they've done that to the Chiefs, who will head to Charleston, S.C., for the CABA 18-and-under World Series July 24-31. Because the AABC Connie Mack playoffs are scheduled for the same time, Hammond will skip the latter this year.

But Sutkowski holds out the possibility that the Chiefs - who hosted Ohio Valley Regionals three times since 2000 - could make a bid to host a major AABC or CABA event in the future.

In the meantime, he has more pressing concerns, such as sorting out a pitching rotation after the departure of mainstays Sean Manaea, Andrew Lowe and Billy Timmerman among others.

Andrean lefty Mike Hanchar "will be one of our top guys," said Sutkowski, who also plans to use Gavit righty Aveeno Nasiloski - a breakout star in the outfield last summer - on the mound more this season. Morton's Brandon Valentine, who is hoping to bounce back after a frustrating spring, is another pitching option. Other veterans include Whiting's Elliott Bajda and Andrean's Tyler Ochi.

"Offensively, we've got a nice little lineup," Sutkowski said. "Defensively, we've got options."

This and that: Two teams that could benefit from the Chiefs' departure from Babe Ruth are the Hammond Hurricanes, who finished third in last year's Northern Indiana state tourney behind the Chiefs and Kokomo, and the Porter County Storm. The Storm, founded in 2008, went from eight wins in its first season to 33 last summer, and has split into Black and Red squads this year. The Black squad is off to a 5-1-1 start.

Note: The Post-Tribune welcomes news about local youth baseball and softball travel and town teams for inclusion in this weekly notebook. Items may be e-mailed to mclark@suntimes.com; please include a contact person's phone number.