Luke Heimlich, one of the best players in college baseball, and certainly its most controversial, strode to the mound, dusted away a patch of dirt with his cleats and lined up for his first pitch.
The home crowd of nearly 3,000, most in orange and black, cheered, “Luke! Luke! Luke!” The Oregon State fans wanted a victory against Arizona State, one of their biggest rivals.
More than that, they wanted a performance that would hark back to a different time – the time before anyone had heard that Heimlich, 22, had pleaded guilty to a felony: sexually molesting his 6-year-old niece when he was 15.
Otherwise, this game in Goss Stadium seemed completely normal. The Beavers are again among the elite. They have a good chance of making it back to the College World Series in June.
But, given his past, the question remained, why was Heimlich, the former star from Puyallup High School, even on the mound?
In a series of interviews with The New York Times this weekend, Heimlich flatly denied committing the crime he had admitted to, saying he pleaded guilty to quickly dispense with the case and for the sake of family relations.
“Nothing ever happened,” he said, when asked for specifics about what might have occurred between him and his niece.
His denial is not likely to stop the questions that surround Oregon State and its baseball team.
Not just about innocence or guilt. But when, exactly, should one be forgiven for a crime?
And what about the victim? How does her enduring anguish figure into a quest for redemption and a new beginning?
The past goes public
In June, when The Oregonian first reported Heimlich’s guilty plea, it said he originally had faced two charges stemming from incidents between 2009 and 2011. The victim is the daughter of one of Heimlich’s older brothers. She has not been identified by name.
According to court records, the newspaper said, she told investigators she was in Heimlich’s bedroom at his home when he pulled her underwear down and “touched her on both the inside and outside.” The Oregonian quoted the documents as saying, “She told him to stop, but he wouldn’t.”
As part of a plea deal, reached when Heimlich was 16, one of the charges was dropped and he was placed on two years’ probation, took court-ordered classes and had 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.
Heimlich also had to write a letter apologizing to his niece.
Heimlich’s case might never have been made public if not for the fact that, years later, while pitching for Oregon State, he failed to update his whereabouts for a state registry of sex offenders, which led to a police citation, which in turn tipped reporters to his case.
Heimlich’s court records were sealed in August, two months after the first news stories broke. That month, five years after the date of his plea, he said, the records were expunged. He no longer has to register as a sex offender.
The news of the case roiled the Oregon State campus and made national headlines. Heimlich left the baseball team, saying he did not want to be a distraction while the team was in the playoffs. Other than a brief statement in which he said he had taken responsibility for his conduct as a teenager, he declined to comment.
Now, on Saturday, in the interviews with The Times, he spoke about what he called his “unique situation.” Asked about the critics who have demanded that Oregon State refuse to let him rejoin the team, he was succinct:
“I don’t have anything to tell them,” he said. “They can have their opinions of me. Ultimately the people around me know who I am. That is what matters. Everybody else can say what they want.”
The case, he said, is “a delicate family situation,” though he declined to go into the details.
Did he abuse his niece?
Heimlich insisted he did not.
“I always denied anything ever happened,” he said. “Even after I pled guilty, which was a decision me and my parents thought was the best option to move forward as a family. And after that, even when I was going through counseling and treatment, I maintained my innocence the whole time.”
There was no interaction with his niece that he could imagine would have been misinterpreted, he said.
Last year, after Heimlich’s guilty plea had been made public, Oregon State coach Pat Casey, denied knowing about Heimlich’s past while he was recruiting him to come to Corvallis.
This season, Casey has said little more than that he supports his star. “He’s a fine young man,” Casey told reporters last summer, “and for every second that he has been on this campus, on and off the field, he has been a first-class individual – someone his family should be proud of, our community should be proud of and his team is proud of.”
Citing confidentiality laws, university officials have refused to say what they knew about Heimlich’s background. Casey and Steve Clark, a university spokesman, would not grant interviews with The Times, nor would the Oregon State president, Ed Ray.
Ray had issued a statement after the university reviewed the case, saying in part it would “welcome all educationally qualified students, including those rehabilitated from past crimes.”
In his interviews with The Times, Heimlich said he had not talked about his case with Casey before his plea went public. “It is my job to report to the local law enforcement,” he said. “If that didn’t get conveyed to the university then I would not know, I was not a part of that.”
When the initial report about him was published, the immediate question was whether Heimlich would stay on the team, which was advancing in the NCAA Tournament.
The victim’s mother, who also has not been named to protect the identity of her daughter, was quoted by the Oregonian as saying, “I’m appalled that the college he is going to would even have him on their team.”
“He got two years of counseling and classes,” she told the newspaper. “My daughter’s life had been changed for the rest of her life.” The victim’s mother could not be reached for this article.
Ray supported Heimlich’s voluntary withdrawal from the team last season. He also left the door open for a return.
Heimlich would have turned professional if he could have. More than 1,200 players were chosen in last summer’s major league draft, but Heimlich, who was eligible for selection, was not one of them.
So, with the goal still to make the majors, he returned to the Oregon State team this year.
Regrets about a plea
At the time of his decision to plead guilty, Heimlich told The Times, neither he nor his family “understood the magnitude of the situation.”
“We weren’t given the greatest legal advice,” he said. “So we weren’t properly prepared.”
What about his handwritten apology?
He said he wrote it because he had to. “There were certain requirements when going through counseling that had to be done to finish.”
Heimlich suggested the idea that his niece would face aggressive questioning in a trial factored into his decision to plead guilty.
“Trials aren’t fun things and, as I said before, it is a delicate situation within a family,” he said. “We didn’t want to do anything to complicate things.”
Pleading out held the promise that, “five years from the date, everything would go back to normal.”
Officials with major league baseball teams declined to speak on the record about Heimlich.
In five years, in 10 years, where will he be?
“I will be playing baseball,” he said.