Sometime over the next 48 hours, a Major League Baseball team is almost certain to ask a convicted, admitted child molester to play in its organization. It’s likeliest to happen Tuesday, during Rounds 3 through 10 of the MLB draft, or perhaps Wednesday, over the draft’s final 30 rounds. And on the off-chance that the handful of teams with Luke Heimlich on their draft boards opt against selecting him, the chance that he goes unsigned is basically zero.
For more than a year now, teams have grappled with the idea of Heimlich. He is Oregon State’s ace and one of the best college pitchers in the nation; he is the signatory of a guilty plea to molesting a 6-year-old female relative when he was 15. He is a left-hander whose fastball tops out at 97 mph; he is an endless supply of bad headlines, treacherous questions and awful publicity. He is worthy of a second chance, with low recidivism rates for the crime to which he admitted; he now says that despite the guilty plea, he didn’t commit that crime, which only confuses the matter more.
Sports so often stumbles as it tries to strike the balance between talent and principle, and Heimlich’s case is no exception. His eventual signing will represent a clear value judgment: that his ability as a baseball player outweighs the moral quagmire of his actions and serves as an admission that the organization will embrace someone who in his guilty plea wrote “I admit that I had sexual contact” with a little girl.
It presents a litmus test that the Baltimore Orioles took last year, when they engaged in conversations with Heimlich about signing him as a non-drafted free agent, three sources familiar with the conversations told Yahoo Sports. While the sides did not strike a deal, the discussions with the Orioles showed Heimlich that even a few months after the disclosure of his case by The Oregonian, he was not entirely toxic to teams.
The calculus to draft Heimlich, according to three general managers who said he is not on their boards, is simple: The amateur draft is one of the last places to reap significant surplus value. The notion of viewing Heimlich in such a manner – purely as an asset, with child molestation not a heinous act but simply a negative-value line item – is terribly cynical.
“And it’s true,” one GM said.
Yes, championing Heimlich as a case of the merits of rehabilitation and growth, the GM said, could allow teams to rationalize choosing him. It’s not nearly as alluring, however, as the strict value play. A player of Heimlich’s pedigree, he said, typically moves quickly through an organization, particularly because he is so polished. Every one of the nine executives surveyed by Yahoo Sports believed Heimlich, if given an opportunity, would be one of the first players from his draft class to reach the major leagues. Once there, if he’s even a league-average starter, he would be worth tens of millions of dollars annually to his team.
And though none has publicly admitted to considering drafting Heimlich, a number of teams are debating whether to do so after spending the last year looking into his case, sources told Yahoo Sports. Even with a deluge of attention following stories on Heimlich from The New York Times and Sports Illustrated, one executive thinking of drafting him – who requested anonymity in case his team does not select Heimlich – said he has workshopped talking points to mitigate the expected outcry.
The backlash, he said, would be severe for about 48 hours, during which the team would emphasize that Heimlich followed the terms of his plea – except for failing to update his status in Oregon’s sex-offender registry, which allowed The Oregonian to request, and eventually receive, documents from his case in Washington state. His coaches and teammates at Oregon State support him. His family stands by him. Only the mother of the victim speaks out against Heimlich. And though that is powerful, the executive said, so is Heimlich’s argument that he pleaded guilty for the sake of his family. Heimlich is religious, the executive said, and the notion of forgiveness can be far-reaching and universal.
The bad press won’t ever go away, the executive admitted, though he deemed it a tolerable consequence. Even if Heimlich is known as the baseball player who sexually assaulted a child and the team his enabler, the executive believes the anger will subside over time. There will be flashpoints where it is relitigated, he said, and Heimlich’s signing would make an executive’s margin for error in personnel matters almost nonexistent. And yet the idea continues to intrigue him.
Which is all well and good and easy until a public that has never heard of Luke Heimlich learns that he has signed and reads court documents in which the victim said Heimlich “pulled down her underwear and with his hand he touched her private part. … She said that she told him to stop, but he wouldn’t.” “Uncle Luke,” she said, “touched her on both the inside and outside of the spot she uses to go to the bathroom. She said that it hurt her. … She said that the first time the respondent touched her she was 4 years old and that she was 6 years old the last time he did this.”
Those are the words on which teams are putting a price. Those are the actions to which teams are assigning a dollar value. Should that executive or any other sign Heimlich, he will need to answer a question: Do you not believe the girl’s story, or are you OK having someone who committed such acts in your organization? Because however much gray there may be in this story, that vital question is binary, and it would seem to have no good answer.
That a number of teams have declared themselves willing to go there illustrates that one man’s forgiveness is another’s depravity. Today, Heimlich’s juvenile record is sealed. No longer is there a restraining order by the victim against him. He does not need to register as a sex offender. He is, in terms of his current legal status, same as everyone else trying to win Oregon State another College World Series.
He is, of course, very different, not just from his teammates but those whose crimes did not prevent them from joining major league organizations. In the eye of the law, by which everyone in this country abides, Luke Heimlich – a left-handed pitcher, an excellent student, a mentor to his siblings and so many other things – is a convicted child molester. It is not a characteristic; it is a brand. And it will never go away, no matter how hard an organization tries to convince itself otherwise.
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