The Luke Heimlich case and why one baseball team's pursuit is full of logical landmines

MLB columnist
Yahoo Sports
Oregon State pitcher Luke Heimlich works with weights during practice in Omaha, Neb., on June 15. (AP)
Oregon State pitcher Luke Heimlich works with weights during practice in Omaha, Neb., on June 15. (AP)

Two facts define Luke Heimlich. The first is that he pleaded guilty as a teenager to molesting his 6-year-old niece. The second is that he is one of the best pitchers in college baseball. How society reconciles personal depravity with professional excellence is a defining question of today, in politics, in Hollywood, in sports – in all public-facing jobs whose disproportionate hold on our moral leanings places an even greater onus on their role as noble actors.

It is no surprise, then, that the Kansas City Royals rendered the first – and so far only – public comment on Heimlich’s suitability to play Major League Baseball. The Royals, and particularly their general manager, Dayton Moore, see MLB and the platform it provides as a conduit to a greater purpose. Moore’s deep religious convictions guide the organization, and the significant consideration it’s given to signing Heimlich follows the axiom of hate the sin, love the sinner.

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Conversations about drafting Heimlich three weeks ago reached the level of Royals president Dan Glass, who nixed the idea, multiple sources familiar with the discussions told Yahoo Sports. For the second consecutive season, Oregon State’s star pitcher went undrafted. That did not end the team’s deliberation over signing Heimlich as a non-drafted free agent, a possibility that Moore first floated into the public more than a week ago during an interview with Fox Sports Kansas City.

And for more than week, it floated in the ether, mentioned by just one person on Twitter, coming to light only after The Athletic tracked it down. Between that and a column in The Kansas City Star that first broached the Royals’ interest in Heimlich, the organization sent two trial balloons to gauge the potential backlash of signing the 22-year-old left-hander.

Whether they can stomach a deluge of bad headlines cannot be the point, not if moral certitude is central to the Royals’ organizational philosophy. In this case, great leadership – the tenet on which Moore most prides himself – demands looking beyond his baseball club. It necessitates answering publicly and transparently the hardest questions a situation such as Heimlich’s offers. Should the Royals sign Heimlich without properly addressing these concerns, they will be branded, accurately and damningly, an organization of hypocrites more concerned with its players viewing sexual acts than admitting to sexually assaulting a kindergarten-aged girl.

It starts with a frank, keen, clear-headed assessment of Heimlich’s case. When Moore told Ryan Lefebvre on Fox Sports Kansas City that “it’s a very complex deal,” he was not exaggerating. What came before that was a rendering of the story that skewed exceedingly sympathetic to Heimlich, which is not altogether surprising considering Moore’s interest, but not confidence-inspiring for the candidness that great leadership requires.

“I think teams are still trying to find out more and more information,” he said. “They’re trying to come to grips with this. This is something that happened in their family. Their family has dealt with this. Their family remains very close today, all parties involved.”

Teams have known about this for more than a year, since The Oregonian’s reporting of a profile on Heimlich led it to discovering his conviction in Washington state. The unsealing of Heimlich’s record would not have happened had he reported to Oregon authorities after his 21st birthday – something he didn’t need to do because he wasn’t an Oregon resident. The error provided clear details to the Oregonian: Heimlich had pleaded guilty to one count of molestation as a 15-year-old but also had been cited by the victim as committing another assault two years earlier, when she was 4.

All parties involved, incidentally, are not close. The victim’s mother told Sports Illustrated: “I would advise everyone to keep their little girls away from him.” Heimlich does not have a substantive relationship with his brother, the girl’s father, who took her to be seen by a group that provides services for child victims.

Kansas City general manager Dayton Moore is devoutly religious. (Getty)
Kansas City general manager Dayton Moore is devoutly religious. (Getty)

These are simple facts, ones impermeable to propaganda and ones that illustrate the trouble with an organization happy to depict itself as inhabitants of the moral high ground. There is no whitewashing. There is no concealing. There is, first and foremost, honesty, and if Moore is going to talk about signing Luke Heimlich in the same context as watching pornography and taking PEDs, he’d best assess the viability of that argument before using it again.

Moore’s attacks on “the harmful effects of pornography” started in spring training and emanated more from the dogma of religion-based assessment than research-based studies, which vary wildly on its effects. Intentional or not, Moore’s conflation of pornography with child molestation certainly does not have any science-backed data and runs into the same false-equivalency territory of comparing a second chance for Heimlich with one for former Royals outfielder Jarrod Dyson, whose crime was a 50-game suspension for amphetamine use.

More important than that, than any of the issues Moore addressed, was the one he didn’t: Heimlich’s profession of innocence. That right is Heimlich’s, even if he was investigated for multiple incidents and pleaded guilty to one and signed a document that said, “I admit that I had sexual contact” with a girl who, according to The Oregonian, told investigators that Heimlich “touched her on both the inside and outside of the spot she uses to go to the bathroom.”

It’s not just Heimlich’s act of denial, though. It’s the shamelessness of talking about it publicly, to Sports Illustrated and The New York Times, in the midst of an attempted redemption tour. It’s using his stardom as a cudgel to spin the story knowing the victim will not talk and her mother won’t be able to mount nearly as large of a public-relations rejoinder. It’s Luke Heimlich’s willingness to continue questioning the story of a little girl who told investigators she suffered through among the most abhorrent crimes known to man – to accuse her of lying without even having to say it.

Heimlich did not need to mount a full-blown innocence campaign. He claims, after all, to have signed a plea bargain on the advice of others, who told him that if he behaved and fulfilled the terms of his deal, the case’s existence never would see the light of day. Even then, Heimlich said he didn’t do it, but he was willing to subvert the truth anyway. Claiming innocence without an ability to prove it does nothing to bolster Heimlich’s case other than give those who want to sign him a convenient excuse: “He says he didn’t do it.” Taking any sort of responsibility in the lead-up to the draft – subverting the truth that Heimlich is trying to peddle – at very least would have saved the girl from his implication that someone invented her trauma.

The abundance of red flags has not scared off the Royals yet, according to sources. The Athletic reported any signing on Heimlich by Kansas City would not happen soon, and two sources told Yahoo Sports that if the Royals do agree to terms with him, he almost certainly would not pitch this season. Part of that would be due to his heavy workload with Oregon State, for whom Heimlich lost Game 1 of the College World Series on Tuesday, and another part on account of the Royals’ need to formulate a plan of how exactly to handle everything that would come with Heimlich.

Kansas City would need to consult its minor league affiliates, which it has yet to do, sources told Yahoo Sports. And consider its policy on Heimlich’s interactions with kids. And so much more, all seemingly for the purpose of getting a quality lefty arm into the organization. It became clear rather quickly why baseball’s 29 other general managers have eschewed making an argument in favor of Heimlich: because it’s fraught with logical landmines that even the best intentioned, such as Dayton Moore, have difficulty avoiding. Moore asked: “Do I believe that he has earned an opportunity to play professional baseball?” And he answered: “I do, because of his character over the last four or five years, what we know about him, and how he performed. I’m not going to sit here and say he deserves it, because I don’t know all the facts.”

He never will. No one except Heimlich and the victim can. Which renders the full accounting of facts immaterial. Without it, after all, Moore still believes a player can “earn” the right to play organized baseball. He believes in second chances, in the game’s ability to offer them, in rehabilitation. And he wonders if something or someone put him in this place, if this all is divine, some great test in which he’s the one who must make the argument in favor of the admitted molester.

“I was hoping, as the general manager, that somebody else would draft and sign him,” Moore told Fox Sports Kansas City. “Maybe I don’t have enough courage.”

Courage. It’s an interesting word choice. It came from a place of pure honesty, one in which the moral dilemma gives Moore pause. There’s an air of martyrdom to it – that to offer Heimlich an opportunity would take sacrifice but be worthwhile and necessary. That Dayton Moore – who sees himself as a decent man, a righteous man, a good father, a leader, a champion, someone whose impact on the world far supersedes what his baseball teams do – would put his reputation on the line to vouch for Luke Heimlich.

Which, of course, is a terribly simple perspective, though sometimes the simplest things are the most revealing. If Moore does continue to consider the possibility of signing Heimlich, the very hardest question won’t have anything at all to do with the case. It’s one that strikes right at the heart of who he says he is and what he says matters to him and what he says he stands for:

If one of your daughters said a man molested her, what would you think of that man?

The decent person, the righteous person, looks at this case from that perspective, from one of empathy toward the most vulnerable. Dayton Moore may well be right. He could be here, in this situation, in this moment, for a truly divine purpose. Just not the one he thinks.

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