Amid a distressing makeover by the Royals, the franchise faces numerous complicated decisions. But one looming consideration has more perilous and broad implications than about any other.
The Royals are exploring the possibility of trying to sign Luke Heimlich, the Oregon State pitcher who as a 15-year-old in 2012 pleaded guilty to a felony charge of molesting his 6-year-old niece.
“We continue to seek information that allows us to be comfortable in pursuing Luke,” general manager Dayton Moore said earlier this week.
This is a probe into a hornet’s nest plopped on a third-rail shrouded in a haze — bearing who-knows-what-substantial-upside and/or unanticipated consequences in the bigger picture.
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Never mind that Moore is a man of impeccable integrity and sincerity and has a staff that reflects his values.
Even as he cautioned that it’s a tentative exploration, the very notion is laden with hazards.
Cue the alarm and skepticism, particularly when it comes to what Heimlich’s place in the public spotlight would forever stand for to survivors of abuse and their families.
Bring on the irrefutably valid counter-points to contemplating this, especially in the era of monsters Jerry Sandusky and Larry Nassar, including the most basic question:
Even if Heimlich, who is pitching in the College World Series, never is accused of hurting anyone again, why should he have this chance?
“I’m sorry, but Luke does not deserve to be on that platform and pedestal, (potentially) looked up to and adored by millions of people, including young kids,” Brenda Tracy, a nationally recognized activist and survivor of a gang rape in Corvallis, Ore., said by telephone Saturday.
She later added, “We should never normalize, we should never minimize (what Heimlich pleaded guilty to). If the Royals bring him on their team, they are complicit in normalizing and minimizing.”
Nothing resonates more widely and deeply than those points do, and ultimately they should guide where this all goes.
Moore talks often about how every decision he makes has to be in the best interests of the organization, and, thus, for what the franchise stands.
No matter how honorably intended, this idea irreconcilably clashes with the senses of innocence and family Moore seeks to cultivate in the region, the stands and the clubhouse.
Still, it’s important to understand why Moore is exploring it.
Are we about rehabilitation or merely punishment, wrath or mercy?
Do we take away the apparent best chance for a future for someone whose heinous crime was committed in his early teens and has paid his legal debt to society?
Doesn’t it matter that by all accounts, including those of court-appointed therapists, Heimlich has shown no signs of reoffending or been in any trouble since?
All of the above and more will go into the blender for Moore.
“You try to be open-minded,” Moore said. “We’re an organization that has constantly given players second and third chances.”
I’ve talked to Moore many times about related topics. You can take him at his word that that’s the mindset with which he is approaching this case — which evokes other recent circumstances here.
As it did for my friend and colleague Sam Mellinger, this prospect in some ways reminds me of what the Chiefs did in drafting Tyreek Hill in 2016 despite his ongoing probation for domestic assault.
But I also wondered this: “Should Hill at 22 be condemned to no more chances? If football is his greatest hope to be a productive citizen, how is the greater good served to keep him from that? …”
It also reminds me of Michael Vick, whose name will always make me cringe thinking of the gruesome dog-fighting operation he was involved in and was a coaching intern with the Chiefs last year.
But knowing Vick served his time, I wondered then, “Is the answer really to have no mercy ourselves? Is the answer to quarantine him in a penal colony …? Is it to keep him away from something to which he could make meaningful contributions?”
Trouble is, the case of Heimlich seems more delicate and complicated than even those contentious circumstances.
In some ways, though, it simply comes down to this: Is the potential fallout in perception of the organization remotely worth the risk of Moore theoretically trying to help Heimlich?
Knowing Moore, that would be his guiding incentive in such an endeavor, but he still knows that girding the fan base would be difficult despite his motivation.
“You just engage with transparency and honesty,” he said, before adding, “That’s a tough one.”
The Royals aren’t alone in trying to vet Heimlich, who was widely considered second-round draft talent but too nuclear to be among the 1,204 players selected across 40 rounds.
But maybe the Royals are scrutinizing him more than most:
They’ve had a battery of scouts and other staff members in extensive contact with Heimlich, Heimlich’s family and Oregon State.
Because the school trains at the Royals’ facility in Surprise, Ariz., Moore knows the program and the team well. He thinks “the world of” coach Pat Casey and adds that “we feel like we know the player (Heimlich) well.”
For that matter, for what it’s worth, that player publicly has denied any wrongdoing and says he took the plea deal to avoid possible jail time and avoid the public spectacle of a trial.
If not for a legal glitch, as Sports Illustrated put it in an exhaustive and excellent study of the story, the crime may never have become public.
None of which absolves the fact that he entered a guilty plea.
So Heimlich in essence has both admitted and denied it, part of the cloud that lurks over the whole scene.
So the Royals explore this at considerable risk to a reputation that puts a premium on dedication to the community and inspiring youth.
My rumbling gut says it’s too much to ask of fans, who for all their frustrations right now at least can feel complete conviction that their organization has virtuous priorities.
No matter what the Royals come to learn about Heimlich, there are certain things they can never know and a stain they can never explain away or reset.
Among the images I can’t get past:
If he were to join the Royals and move up through the system to the parent club, even with no further issues on his ledger, his debut would be less a moment of celebration than one of anguish for many.
Inherent in such a scene, Tracy says, would be a statement about “the ways we think about victims and survivors” — who aren’t enough of the equation.
“It will cause dissent and division,” Tracy said, adding, “Is it necessary? I just don’t think that it is.”
For all that, though, I feel some conflict over this. Because I believe I understand the heart with which Moore analyzes this.
If Moore and other Royals executives were to go forward, it would be because they determined that Heimlich has been exemplary since the plea, that they can help him stay that way and that he can help them enough that it’s worth the repercussions.
But, Tracy wonders, what does that help actually look like and mean? Would such an idea be considered if Heimlich were mediocre with little potential? And why is it assumed that Heimlich has no future without baseball, considering many athletes who suffer career-ending injuries simply go on to other things?
That’s a lot for Moore to consider — and much for him to pay heed no matter what the Royals feel they come to learn about Heimlich.
“The easy thing is to wipe your hands of it and don’t even look into it or deal with it. We’re going to continue to look into it,” he said. “I think that’s what good organizations do. I think that’s what good people do. And we try to be both.”
That they do. But sometimes those priorities can be incompatible.