Baseball's Troubling Heimlich Maneuver

Luke Heimlich wasn't drafted. Again. He pleaded guilty to child molestation at 15. The story isn't that simple.

The best college pitcher to go in the major league baseball draft is Casey Mize, no relation to Hall of Fame slugger Johnny Mize, whom the Tigers drafted out of Auburn University Tuesday. The reputed best college pitcher in the country otherwise didn't go in this year's draft. For a second time, baseball dodged a howitzer shell of unknown caliber.

Luke Heimlich, Oregon State University lefthander, had the best earned run average among the nation's college pitchers last year and went untouched in the major league draft. This year, the 22-year-old senior has a 2.42 ERA and a 15-1 won-lost record, and he went untouched in the major league draft again.

Last year, the Orioles pondered signing him as an undrafted free agent before reaching no deal. This year, the Orioles and 29 other major league franchises have something between jittery nerves and a splitting migraine about drafting him. They've had it since an unexpected legal glitch exposed Heimlich to a reporter for The Oregonian, Danny Moran, who thus discovered he was an admitted child molester at fifteen, and whose paper broke the story on the threshold of last year's College World Series.

Those who thought Heimlich would be drafted and signed regardless face what Yahoo! Sports writer Jeff Passan says "represent(s) 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."

The girl in question is Heimlich's niece, who was six years old at the time. Her mother was married to one of Heimlich's brothers, but the couple divorced before the incident was reported. The woman told her ex-husband about it after a conversation with their daughter in summer 2012; after talking with his father and brother several times, in each of which Heimlich denied having done what he was accused of doing, touching the girl between her legs, the brother took it to the police.

When the Oregonian story broke Heimlich publicly withdrew from the OSU baseball team for the College World Series. It was just a couple of months before his juvenile record would be sealed, in his native Washington state, where the incident occurred, and he would be allowed to live anywhere he chose in that state normally and without restriction.

Heimlich registered as required as a level-one (lowest risk, least likely to re-offend) sex offender in Oregon's Benton County, where local police forgot to fingerprint him and he inadvertently missed an annual update. Hence his case in Oregon's public court records; hence Moran discovering the secret that may or may not be deeper than merely labeling Heimlich as a child molester. Moran was subject to death threats and The Oregonian to accusations of trying to destroy Heimlich.

Last month, Heimlich told The New York Times he and his family filed the guilty plea on questionable legal advice, and that he always maintained his innocence even in subsequent court documents, even after accepting lifelong sex offender registrations. In February, the family also gave Portland Tribune reporter Kerry Eggers a pile of documents involving therapist and court reports not previously disclosed for public knowledge plus not-for-quoting interviews including by Heimlich himself.

Those documents indicate Heimlich's parents retained an attorney who arranged for a polygraph that he passed, though he could be asked only about other sexual misconduct with younger people, not with his niece, under Washington law. They say the attorney told his parents the choices were between his pleading not guilty and risking forty weeks in juvenile detention after a trial, or pleading guilty with probation, counseling, and sex offender registry, among others.

They also say, wrote Eggers, that the attorney also advised the Heimlichs their son's chances for conviction were too powerful if he chose to plead not guilty; that the family was alarmed over what potential court testimony might do to the girl; that his court-appointed therapist observed no misbehaviours and "good effort in treatment despite his denial of the offense"; and, that Heimlich's father has since consulted legal experts who told him of legal options he could have pursued had he known of them.

"Had he known what he knows now," Eggers wrote, " he likely would have sought a different attorney. Given the risks and the circumstances, if he could have accomplished that without putting his granddaughter through turmoil, he would have changed the decision to have Luke agree to a guilty plea."

Heimlich has seen his estranged brother and his niece at several family gatherings since, though they don't talk. His former sister-in-law has toldSports Illustrated writer S.K Price, for a May cover story, that her daughter, now twelve, has since shown little memory of Heimlich's touch and little if any "lingering effect," knowing only "that Luke was inappropriate." The lady was also careful to add, "[T]hose kind of things manifest differently in every single victim. As far as I can tell, no it hasn't. She's still my superstar girl; she's stronger than most full-grown women. I mean, she's great. But I do worry that in the future that it will."

Heimlich's pitching ability is not disputed. Those in the know say he has enough ability right now to get major league hitters out. They strain to balance between the crime to which he pleaded, and its victim, and the question of how long such an heinous crime, if he really was guilty, will be held against him.

"I feel for the kid because, allegedly whatever occurred, he's gotten in the treatment programs and moved on with his life and gotten to this level," an unnamed major league general manager told Price. "Hey, congrats. But that doesn't mean we---or any of the 29 other clubs---have to participate in that process and hire him." Any team that does risks trouble down their organisational structure and outrage by fans who won't look past the surface of seeing their team placing a fair portion of its future into the hands of a child molester.

In January 1958, Phillies first baseman Ed Bouchee---runner-up to his teammate Jack Sanford in the National League's 1957 Rookie of the Year voting---was arrested for exposing himself to young girls. Bouchee underwent psychiatric treatment, rejoined the Phillies later in 1958, then moved on to the Cubs and to the expansion Mets, in whose minor league system he finished his fading playing career. He retired to Chicago and made a second life administering an auto parts warehouse, raising his family, before retiring permanently to Arizona, where he died at 79 in 2013.

Bouchee's major league career had only just begun, basically (during his minor league days he missed time to military service earlier in the 1950s), when he was arrested. Heimlich's baseball career may be over before he ever gets to turn professional. Those who judge such turpitude on sliding scales may concur that a charge of compulsive exhibitionism such as Bouchee's would be easier for Heimlich to survive than a guilty plea to physical molestation. And there have been players arrested and convicted for sexual misconduct involving underage girls after their playing days ended.

"We absorb the once appalling with an ease once unimaginable; 'normal' changes by the day," Price wrote. "So here's a good time to mark our capacity. Maybe we should know how much we're ready to take---be it out of compassion or callousness or the urge to be amused. Because if some team drafts Luke Heimlich, you will hear them clear. One voice asking why we shouldn't forgive. And another one asking if we'll forgive most anything."

Even the unforgivable, if Heimlich really was guilty and is oblivious to the bind into which he'd thrust professional baseball? Even the unforgivable, if he really was innocent, begging the question as to why the accusation was made in the first place, one bitter truth remaining that merely to be accused of a sexual crime is to be stained irrevocably? Even the unforgivable, if there's the chance that the girl felt pressured to say what wasn't quite true, the latter of which would qualify as another kind of child abuse?

If Heimlich and his parents really acted on bad legal advice, it would hardly be unheard of and a morbid injustice at once. Some would remind you that if you act on bad legal advice, thus bearing the stain that attaches even by accusation alone, your recourse to hold such advisors legally accountable would likely end in your bankruptcy before your vindication.

You remind yourself that even for the innocent there's no inalienable right to a particular profession and particular employment in it. Heimlich would have a simpler time continuing his life if he'd aimed toward a career less likely to keep him in the public eye and the public eye wedded to his past. It isn't simple for him to know that even an error in legal judgment may yet leave him with a dream obliterated.