Word came down today that two-time All American pitcher Luke Heimlich’s contract with an Asian professional baseball club was voided at the last second. Apparently, the Chinese Baseball League hierarchy decided, after he signed a contract, to enforce a little known rule that does not allow teams to sign any player with a criminal history. A few days ago, Heimlich signed a pretty nice deal. Two days later, it was voided.
In case you need a reminder, Heimlich was the 2018 National Pitcher of the Year in college baseball who plead guilty to molesting his 6-year-old niece when he was in high school. Problem is the pitcher has always maintained his innocence, both back in high school and, later, when the story broke during his junior year at Oregon State. He has never changed his story, never wavered from his conviction that he was coerced into pleading guilty to a crime he did not commit. The district attorney handling the case, in the state of Washington, assured the family that if Heimlich plead guilty to a sex crime, the case would simply go away three years later. In essence, the D.A. convinced the kid that pleading guilty was best for everyone and no big deal.
When Heimlich was finishing up a stellar junior season, The Oregonian, a newspaper based in Portland, chose to run the story a couple weeks before the College World Series and a few days before the Major League Baseball draft. It was no accident that their timing to break the news was right before the draft. Heimlich went from a sure-fire first round pick to literally untouchable by any MLB club. Since then, teams have secretly interviewed him, talked to him, probed him, but nobody has signed him. One MLB player personnel director admitted to me, and I quote: “he is a great kid, as talented as they come and I really like him, but the climate in this country at this time will not allow us to sign him.”
Think about that statement. “The climate in this country” won’t allow the kid to make a living at what he does best, which just happens to be pitch a baseball.
Before we go any farther, nobody is advocating that we don’t pay attention to the climate in this country. The #MeToo movement and so many other victims who have come forward deserve our respect and admiration. At the same time, none of us are dumb enough to believe that all the stories we have heard are necessarily true. They need to be evaluated and researched for facts, just like we are doing here.
There are a lot of very messy questions in the Heimlich case, most importantly the question about whether a star pitcher is a very sick person who could commit a heinous crime against a child. I believe Heimlich is not one of those people. He is not a pedophile and he is not a sick human being. He is, to some regard, a product of our criminal justice system where guilty doesn’t necessarily mean guilty, but sometimes means just easier. We see it over and over again, and now we see it in one of the country’s top pitching prospects.
How good was he? Heimlich was the most dominating pitcher in college baseball for two years. Some MLB scouts had him going first in the draft at the end of this junior year. The first guy picked in the 2018 Major League Baseball draft signed for just over $8,000,000. Last year, the first pick signed for $7,500,000. Oregon State’s Nick Madrigal, who went 4th overall this year, signed for the slot value of $6,400,000.
While there are messy questions in the air here, there are challenging questions in this case that need to be asked too. Like, what if the kid actually didn’t do it? What if the story he has never wavered from since high school is actually true? What if, by some weird miracle, the kid is actually innocent and he did actually plead guilty because it was a terrible family mess that completely got out of hand? What if, as one family member contends, the family is from a small community and the kid was under a lot of pressure to just make it all go away? It is my belief that, if we choose to judge Heimlich, than we have an obligation to answer those questions. At the very least, examine them. Lest we forget, a young man’s future is at stake here.
To be clear, a defense of Heimlich is not the politically correct thing to do. But, when you have a counselor who oversaw the case when he was a teenager, three family members who were there from the beginning, and then, earlier this year, reporters who interviewed the kid all saying the same thing, it makes you take a step back and look for answers yourself. To a man, everyone just mentioned has said that Heimlich has claimed his innocence and that he has never changed his story. To a man, everyone just mentioned above have said they believe the kid.
The irony in all of this is that we are so naïve as a society. Do any of us really believe that a 15 year old boy can’t be coerced into pleading guilty to something he didn’t do? Do any of us believe that a 6 year old child is equipped to answer police questions without those questions being leading? Just in case you are looking for an answer to that question, do any of you remember Judy Johnson? Ms. Johnson accused her ex-husband, a day care worker, of sexually assaulting their son back in 1983 as part of the McMartin Pre School trial. That accusation kick started the most expensive trial in California history. Numerous children, ages 3-7. were interviewed by police. As a result of those interviews, the DA in the case brought numerous charges against several family members and day care workers. Problem is, none of it was true. Not one iota of it. No children were molested, and no children were touched inappropriately. The children were coerced and led and their testimony coached, so, as a result, the McMartin’s, who were innocent all along, lost their schools and their sense of normalcy in life.
Of course, there are those who will say Heimlich plead guilty, so he must be guilty. There are those who say that, as a result of all this, he should not be allowed to showcase his skills in professional baseball. I, for one, am not one of those people. I am a father of young girls — 14, 12, and 1 — and I have researched this case extensively trying my hardest to not believe the kid, to find something juicy and definitive that declares to me “he is a scumbag child molester.” At the end of the day, it is not there. While it is controversial to say it, I believe Heimlich is telling the truth when he says he didn’t do it.
Whatever happened during that time seven years ago is something the Heimlich family, including Luke, have to live with. The police and the prosecutors, especially the DA who told this kid and his family this would all go away in three years, have to live with themselves and their decisions as well. The conclusions they made dramatically impacted an entire family, including a 6 year old girl and a 15 year old boy. Now, years later, those decisions have impacted the life and career of a 22 year old young man.
At the core of this argument are so many polarizing questions for which there are just no clear cut answers. While people may or may not appreciate my support of Heimlich, there is one undeniable fact that we cannot run away from. Basic human decency tells us that the young man, at the very least, deserves understanding and compassion, just as the young girl at the center of this controversy deserves the same. That understanding and compassion includes, to some extent, an opportunity to do your job, to better your life, to become the young man the people at Oregon State have grown to admire. For this particular young man, that means being able to pitch a baseball. He’s getting a raw deal by not being able to do so.