Since the revelation in June 2017 that Luke Heimlich had pleaded guilty for sexually molesting his 6-year-old niece when he was 15, he has gone from a top college pitcher to an entirely shunned one.
All 30 major league teams have passed on drafting or signing Heimlich; the Kansas City Royals considered it last year but backed off when even the mere idea drew backlash.
But a team in the Liga Mexicana de Béisbol decided that Heimlich, now 23, merited an opportunity after serving his punishment and signed the left-hander, who has been throwing as hard as 94 miles per hour recently. During preseason training on Wednesday, , he threw a bullpen session in his new uniform.
It is unclear whether Heimlich, who has said that his criminal record has been expunged, will be able to stick with his new team, the Tecolotes de los Dos Laredos. His signing has drawn criticism from the victim’s family and a prominent activist, and the Tecolotes might become the second team whose deal with Heimlich has been nixed by their league.
“He’s not registered in the league,” Javier Salinas, the president of the Mexican league, said in Spanish in a phone interview from Japan, where a contingent of Mexican players were taking part in exhibition games. “We have to analyze his case. It’s very difficult to see him registered in the Mexican League.”
If he is blocked by the league office, it would not be the first time. In August, the Lamigo Monkeys in Taiwan reached a deal with Heimlich. But after a wave of criticism, the Chinese Professional Baseball League declared that Heimlich could not play there because of his criminal history and the effect on the league’s image.
Salinas said that the Mexican league, which is affiliated with Minor League Baseball and is considered Class AAA, had previously rejected players with checkered backgrounds involving problems like doping and gambling.
“The player has to have irreproachable conduct and be a good representative of the team and the league,” he said. “Like any league, we have to verify that all of our entrants have good conduct. We are an example to a lot of boys and girls. And we have to protect the image of the league.”
José Antonio Mansur, the owner of the Tecolotes, said it was a common practice for the league to have final say on a player’s contract. But he added that the league had taken the unusual step of asking Heimlich to sign a letter vowing good behavior, which he did on Wednesday.
“I’m not a judge,” Mansur said in Spanish in a phone interview from Laredo, Tex. “I’m just a businessman, and I’ll give him an opportunity. If he was guilty, he’s already been judged. I’m just looking from here on forward. He has this opportunity, just like any citizen who has made a mistake. Who hasn’t tripped up in life and has to get back up?”
Mansur said that a rejection of Heimlich’s contract would be discriminatory. Salinas said the league would make a decision “in the coming days.”
Last May, in an interview with The New York Times, Heimlich denied that he had committed the crime he admitted to, saying he had pleaded guilty to quickly dispense with the case and for the sake of the family. The girl’s mother, whose name is being withheld to protect the identity of the victim, has maintained that her daughter’s account is truthful.
As part of a plea deal, reached when Heimlich was 16, one of two charges was dropped, and he was placed on two years’ probation, took court-ordered classes, wrote a letter apologizing to his niece and was forced to register for five years as a Level 1 sex offender, a designation the State of Washington uses for someone considered of low risk to the community and unlikely to become a repeat offender. His juvenile records are sealed.
Heimlich’s case became public in 2017 when, while playing for Oregon State, he failed to update his whereabouts for a state registry of sex offenders, which led to a police citation. He pitched the next year at Oregon State.
Reached on Wednesday night, Heimlich declined to comment.
The victim’s mother was unaware of Heimlich’s new job until asked for comment. “My view on the subject has not changed nor will it: I don’t believe he deserves a spot on any professional team,” she wrote in a text message.
Brenda Tracy, one of Oregon’s most prominent victims’ rights activists, who frequently speaks about sexual abuse in sports and on college campuses, called Heimlich’s signing “really problematic.”
“This softens him,” she said. “Because someone is giving him a so-called second chance, it is paving the way for a team in Major League Baseball to sign him. They will say, ‘Mexico signed him, so we are not the only ones, we were not the first ones to do this,’ and that is wrong. It is ignoring the victim, and it is wrong.”
She added, “As I’ve said before, second chances do not have to include playing sports, especially pro sports, because in our society, we put these athletes up on a pedestal.”
The Tecolotes, who have an unusual arrangement with home stadiums on both sides of the border, got in touch with Heimlich’s agent in January through an intermediary. Talks became more serious last month before an agreement was reached. Mansur said the Tecolotes’ front office and coaching staff had watched video of Heimlich from college and of a tryout in front of scouts.
In vetting Heimlich, Mansur said the team had spoken with Heimlich’s representatives but not with Heimlich directly, though he said he planned to meet with him later Thursday in camp.
Mansur said he had consulted with his team’s lawyers and with his family, which runs the team. He did not speak with the victim or her family, he said, because they had already spoken to investigators and Heimlich had already served his penalty. Mansur said that he was aware that the Tecolotes were opening themselves up to criticism with the signing but that he believed Heimlich should not be punished for life.
“For the fans, I ask that we all analyze ourselves,” he said. “This is really a kid who wants to and has decided to move ahead with his life. And like he says, to be an example and to be a good kid. I think he merits our support.”
The league, however, may not feel the same way.
Kurt Streeter contributed reporting.
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