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DISPUTE WITH HAMMOND FORCES TEAM'S MOVE TO MERRILLVILLE

Friday, July 1, 2016 • POSTED BY:  Admin

Story from Post-Tribune on Riverside Park  - 

Dispute with Hammond forces team's move to Merrillville

 Riverside Park, shown before the 2015 baseball season, was home to the Hammond Chiefs for more than 20 years. (Dave Sutkowski / Provided by Dave Sutkowski)

Mike Clark   -  Post Tribune

 

 

For the first time in more than 20 years, Dave Sutkowski has a new summer routine, and it's been a bit of an adjustment.

"It's been a lot less stressful this summer because I don't have to be at Riverside Park every single night," said Sutkowski, who founded the Hammond Chiefs baseball organization in 1991 and coached it to numerous successes, including the 2003 Senior Babe Ruth World Series championship. "Don't get me wrong, that's where I'd like to be."

But a dispute with the city of Hammond last fall led to the eviction of the club — now known as the Morris Baseball Chiefs — and its relocation to Andrean High School in Merrillville.

The decision to boot the Chiefs from the park they helped to build in 1992 has its critics, including Butch Blevins. The retired president and business manager of Ironworkers Local 395 in Hammond helped to coordinate the efforts of union workers who donated labor to build the park initially and then to repair storm damage in 2014.

"I didn't like it because we've been there for 25 years," Blevins said. "We built that field, the mayor (Thomas McDermott Jr.) didn't build it. I think something could have been worked out with the mayor and Dave would have agreed with it."

The field was built as a replacement for the Chiefs' original facility, which was on the current campus of Edison Elementary School. According to Sutkowski, the city of Hammond obtained a $50,000 grant to pay for materials for the Riverside Park field. In turn, the Chiefs had to supply $50,000 worth of labor to build it.

"The agreement was, once it was built, we would be responsible for maintaining it," Sutkowski said.

Also part of the informal deal, according to both Sutkowski and McDermott, was the understanding that the Chiefs would not have to pay rent to use Riverside. In recent years, the Chiefs also maintained the field in the spring so Hammond's high school teams could play games there. Improvements were made over the years, including the construction of a concession stand, a storage building with a second-story press box and bleachers down the first- and third-base lines.

When storms destroyed part of the fence and one dugout two years ago, the city and the Chiefs teamed up for the repairs. According to Sutkowski, the city funded the fence replacement, while the Chiefs again recruited volunteer labor to rebuild the damaged dugout.

But the city and the team had a falling out last year. Sutkowski said he was asked in October by Donna Muta, then the Hammond parks superintendent, to open the field and turn on the lights so a rugby team — whose members included McDermott's wife Marissa — could practice there.

Because the field had been aerated and fertilized for the winter, Sutkowski balked at the request. When he went to pay the next utility bill for the facility, he found out the account had been switched from the Chiefs to the Hammond Parks Department.

Sutkowski said when he asked Muta about the change, he was told the parks department was taking over maintenance and scheduling at Riverside Park. There was more: If the Chiefs wanted to continue playing at Riverside, they'd have to start paying rent — $150 per game.

According to McDermott, the change had nothing to do with his wife's rugby team being turned away.

"Mowing the lawn for 20 years doesn't make it their property," he said of the Chiefs, adding that they — and other teams — should pay to use the park.

In fact, Chiefs' records show the club spent $4,829.45 on field maintenance in 2015, $8,601.72 in 2014 (with the storm damage boosting expenses) and $4,394.11 in 2013.

"I knew it wasn't right," McDermott said of allowing the Chiefs to play rent-free. "I put my foot down and said it's not going to work like that anymore,"

Given a Dec. 31 deadline to remove their property — including equipment used to maintain the field — the Chiefs did so. Sutkowski also arranged to use Andrean for the team's home games.

But then in March, just before local high school teams were scheduled to begin playing games at Riverside, Sutkowski said he got a call from new Hammond parks administrator Mark Heintz.

"He said, 'Dave, I was just hired. I was told to call you,'" Sutkowski said. "'Can we discuss hiring you to take care of the field (at Riverside Park)? We have no one at this point.'"

But Sutkowski wasn't interested in returning, and poor field conditions forced the cancellation of many of the scheduled high school games this spring.

McDermott acknowledged the field's deficiencies, but cited heavy rains and the low water table as mitigating factors.

Morton High School coach Scott Lush had to readjust his team's schedule because of issues at Riverside this spring.

"I'm disappointed to see Dave go," Lush said. "He basically put his heart and soul into that field and it showed. I felt bad for him. ... I know what it takes to keep a field looking good."

With the Chiefs gone, Riverside has a new tenant this summer: the Michigan City Lakers. The Midwest Collegiate League club needed a new home after its former facility at Purdue North Central in Westville became unavailable. According to a news release from the city, the Lakers will pay "close to $5,000" and assume maintenance duties for Riverside for the summer. Hammond's parks department also will keep all concession revenue, while the Lakers will retain ticket revenue.

Riverside also has played host to some travel baseball team events this summer. Meanwhile, Sutkowski and the Chiefs have moved on. He is coaching the 17-and-under team, which was 20-5 heading into the World Wood Bat Association 17U National Championship that began Friday in Cartersville, Ga.

Does this season feel different for Sutkowski?

"It does," he said. "Just because were there (at Riverside Park) for so long."

Freelance writer Jim Masters contributed to this story.

mclark@tribpub.com

Twitter @mikeclarkpreps

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