On the eve of last year’s baseball draft, there was a chill wind.
This was not a late injury scaring off a team, or a bonus demand with too many zeroes attached. This was the sudden revelation that one of the finest pitchers in college baseball, a guy who had gone an entire season without giving up a home run, a guy literally days away from becoming a millionaire, had pleaded guilty to molesting his 6-year-old niece.
Luke Heimlich might have been drafted in the first round. But all 40 rounds came and went, and all 30 major league teams passed.
He returned to Oregon State for his senior season, and for a second chance at the draft. He pitched well, again, the ace for one of the top three teams in the country. The behavior cited in the guilty plea is seven years old, from when Heimlich was 15. The major league teams have had another full season to scout him, evaluate him and investigate him. No guarantees, of course.
But, as teams convened their scouts and assembled their draft boards last month, Heimlich broke his silence to say this: He had not molested his niece after all.
This year’s draft starts Monday, ends Wednesday. The already-layered dilemma about whether Heimlich deserves a chance at redemption in his chosen career has been incredibly, almost astonishingly, muddled: Does he merit forgiveness for a sin he now says he did not commit?
“For me, there are too many red flags,” said one major league talent evaluator, granted anonymity in order to speak candidly about the delicate subject. “I think some team will draft him.”
Heimlich is a polished left-hander with advanced command, the kind of pitcher that tends to arrive in the major leagues in a hurry.
The Major League Baseball website ranked the top 200 draft prospects and did not include him. Baseball America, an independent outlet not beholden to the league or any particular interest it might have in not promoting Heimlich, did not include him in its ranking of the top 500 prospects.
“On talent, he’d fit in the 30-50 range in the draft,” executive editor J.J. Cooper said via text message, “but many [although not all] teams have removed him from their draft list because of his guilty plea.”
In 2012, when he was 16, Heimlich signed that guilty plea — seven pages long, written in his own hand.
His plea agreement included these terms: probation, counseling, writing a letter of apology, staying away from her and registering with authorities as a sex offender. After five years, he was told, it was likely that the restrictions would be lifted and the court record sealed.
The five years had almost run out when the Oregonian newspaper uncovered details of Heimlich’s status last June. He left the Oregon State team, saying in a statement: “I have taken responsibility for my conduct when I was a teenager.” He came back this season but, as Sports Illustrated reported, the university no longer featured him in promotions.
For teams, the debate about whether to take a chance on Heimlich grew exponentially more difficult when he declared in interviews in SI and the New York Times that he did not do what he had confessed he did.
He had maintained his innocence all along, he said, and accepted the guilty plea to eliminate the risk of incarceration, avoid putting the girl on the witness stand, and put his life back on a path toward normality.
So what exactly happened?
“Nothing ever happened, so there is no incident to look back on,” he told the New York Times.
“There is no way he didn’t do it,” the girl’s mother told the New York Times.
For a scouting director charged with evaluating thousands of players each year, not only on talent but also on character, the Heimlich saga might be overwhelming.
“It’s a tricky road that eats into time and energy [when] we could be dealing with other players,” one major league executive said.
With Heimlich’s new denials of wrongdoing apparently impossible to verify, he might well go undrafted again this year, a second executive said.
“There is no new information that I am aware of,” the executive said. “If there’s no new information, why would it be different?”
The talent evaluator said that, before the Oregonian story broke last spring, two Northwest-area scouts had raved about Heimlich’s makeup.
“They liked him as a player,” he said, “and loved him as a person.”
Now there are uncomfortable questions.
Would he be embraced in a minor league clubhouse, or would teammates shun him, even if they did not have kid sisters?
Would he be able to find a host family to house him, as so many players do at the lower levels of the minor leagues, or would any such family worry about protests over a sex offender living in the neighborhood?
How much time and energy would a major league team be willing to spend defending the selection of Heimlich, given the torrent of criticism that surely would flow its way, at least at first?
Keith Law, formerly in the front office of the Toronto Blue Jays and currently an ESPN analyst, wrote that Heimlich’s failure last year to disclose his plea to scouts asking about his background might have gotten those scouts fired, assuming that history later surfaced.
“Heimlich put many people’s jobs at risk, and disclosed nothing until he was forced to do so by a good journalist,” Law wrote on Twitter. “He thought of no one but himself. I wouldn’t want this person in my organization under any circumstances.”
The Dodgers backed away from a trade for pitcher Aroldis Chapman when they learned about a domestic violence incident. The New York Yankees later traded for Chapman, and so did the Chicago Cubs. With him as their closer, the Cubs won the World Series.
Three baseball officials told the Los Angeles Times that they considered domestic violence, while abhorrent, to be on a different plane than child molestation.
“The one thing in life you don’t want to make a mistake with is your children,” one of the officials said.
It would be a mistake to pretend that at least some teams would not consider Heimlich’s talent projection before deciding whether to draft him.
Chapman served a 30-day suspension under the sport’s domestic violence, sexual assault and child abuse policy. Heimlich would not be subject to baseball discipline because the behavior in question occurred before he signed a professional contract, according to the commissioner’s office.
But Chapman already had established himself as a dominant major league closer. Two talent evaluators said Heimlich projected as a major league pitcher, but not as a front-line starter.
Said one: “He’s not good enough for them to take the heat.”
Said the other: “I’m not afraid he’s going to turn into Cliff Lee.”
However, as Heimlich’s draft stock has tumbled, so has the cost to find out if he really is good enough. Might the investment in him, and all that would come with it, be worth it if the signing bonus turns out to be a thousand dollars, instead of a million? Might a team sign him and warn him that he will be gone as soon as he steps off the straightest and narrowest possible line?
Bud Selig, the retired commissioner, was fond of saying that baseball is a social institution with important social responsibilities. In this case, those responsibilities might conflict.
There could be the responsibility of maintaining baseball as a privilege, not a right, for its participants. There also could be the responsibility of providing a young man who has paid his debt to society with a second chance.
There are 1,214 slots in the draft. One major league official said he wrestles with the thought of using one of them on Heimlich.
“The easiest thing is to say no,” he said. “But that might not be the right thing.”
Follow Bill Shaikin on Twitter @BillShaikin