Here’s the outstanding thing about S.L. Price’s article in Sports Illustrated about Oregon State University pitcher Luke Heimlich: It grapples mightily with the ambivalence so many of us feel about this bitterly sad story.
In fact, the cover proclaims, “This is a sports story with no easy answers,” and it’s to Price’s credit in this rigorously reported, beautifully written story that you leave it without any answers — but, perhaps, a deeper appreciation for the questions. The story can be found on SI.com.
Chances are good that you know at least the outlines of this case: Heimlich is the ace pitcher for Oregon State’s baseball team, one of the best college baseball players in the nation. Scouts agree he has the talent to be a major league pitcher.
There’s also this: In 2012, he pleaded guilty to a felony charge that he molested his niece when he was 15 and she was 6.
By all accounts, Heimlich has fulfilled the requirements of his sentence, and his juvenile record was sealed last August. But in recent interviews with Sports Illustrated and The New York Times, Heimlich has said the molestation never happened, that he signed the plea agreement because he and his family didn’t think they would get a fair shake in court. Heimlich told SI’s Price that he and his family “thought that pleading guilty was going to give me the best chance at a normal life, and our family a best chance at reconnecting and being able to just kind of move past this whole event.”
Lawyers who work in juvenile law say it’s not unusual for innocent defendants to plead guilty.
Still, the case never would have seen the light of day if it were not for a series of glitches that resulted in Heimlich being cited last April in Benton County for failing as an Oregon resident to register as a sex offender. Since Heimlich was a Washington resident and was doing everything required of him under that state’s laws, the citation was dismissed in May.
But that’s about the time a writer for The Oregonian, doing what he thought was a routine background check for a story on Heimlich, turned up the Benton County citation. (The newspaper, like others, does these routine checks as a matter of course before doing feature stories; it’s a good practice.)
The Oregonian broke the story. Heimlich withdrew from the team for the remainder of the postseason. OSU President Ed Ray issued a statement in which he said the niece (remember her?) “was the victim of wrongdoing.” He also said that Heimlich was welcome to continue his education and to return to the baseball team for the 2018 season.
Which Heimlich did, after no major league team expressed interest in him in the 2017 draft.
In February, as the 2018 season was starting, OSU announced a new policy requiring enrolling students to self-report felony convictions and to disclose whether they are registered as sex offenders. (It always will be known at OSU as “The Heimlich Rule.”)
It all pressed hard on a bruise the university had been working to heal, especially in the wake of the Brenda Tracy story. Tracy was the victim of a 1998 gang rape that involved two Beaver football players; she went public with the story in 2014, drawing a personal apology from Ray for how the university handled the situation.
Since then, OSU has worked to try to ensure that what Tracy endured never happens again, but allowing Heimlich to play runs the risk of undermining those efforts. Tracy herself told Price that “it really did hurt me when this whole thing unfolded. Because I don’t understand it.”
Does Heimlich get a break that other offenders might not because of his pitching ability?
Ray declined requests for interviews from Sports Illustrated and The New York Times. OSU officials — citing student privacy regulations — never have addressed the case in any detail. Heimlich has not talked about the case to Oregon newspapers.
As for the pieces in SI and the Times, my guess is that someone in Heimlich’s camp suggested he speak to those big-time media outlets to get his story in front of Major League Baseball executives who are trying to decide whether to add him to their rosters.
“This may be the worst sports story every told,” Price writes, near the beginning of his lengthy piece.
But it’s not entirely a sports story, although Price writes about how the “willfully thick” could treat it that way. It’s about justice. It’s about victims. It’s about how we treat sex offenders. It’s about second chances — who deserves them, and who does not and what second chances even look like.
One thing is for sure: It’s not about answers. Just questions.