The first thing to understand about a baseball game involving Luke Heimlich—the Oregon State pitcher who in 2012 pleaded guilty to one felony charge of molesting, at 15, his six-year-old niece, who nevertheless claims innocence, who this season leads the nation in wins—is just how normal it can feel. Nestled mid-campus in Corvallis, Goss Stadium hews to game-day rituals seen forever in ballparks big or small, coast to coast: No matter the paycheck or persona or police record, each player comes packaged the same old way. It is one of the sport's charms.
So it was late in the afternoon of April 19, when winter broke, the sun baked the ground and archrival Oregon made its first appearance of the year. The sound of batting practice, lovely even when—kank!—metallic, blended with rock standards blaring from stadium speakers. Heimlich, owner of a nation's-best 0.76 ERA in 2017 and once a lock for early-round money, aired out his left arm, long-tossing on the warning track. Two dozen windbreakered scouts, even those told by their teams not to bother, eyed him. One spoke of Heimlich's command of four pitches, his ability to hit spots at will—despite orders not to discuss him at all.
Of course the sound of scouts parsing talent, muttering under their breath with a crowd—3,692 tonight, a regular-season record—filing in, is a ballyard staple. Soon, too, came the P.A. man announcing the starting lineups; a local braving the national anthem; the ceremonial first pitch. As the Oregon players returned to their dugout, a middle-aged man greeted them from the stands with a resounding, "Go, Beavs! Ducks Suck! Hate Ducks! Ducks Suck!"
Yes, minutes later, the willfully thick could watch Heimlich, 22, standing alone atop Oregon State's highest dugout step and deem it almost routine. After all, the Beaver faithful had seen him there, poised to take the mound, so often in the previous three years; his fastball was now touching 96 mph, his ERA had spiked some, but the night's starter didn't seem all that different. If it weren't for the legal glitch that last year unearthed his juvenile record as a sex offender, they could almost convince themselves they were in for a night of baseball as usual.
But who, in the era of Too Much Information, can be that single-minded? College campuses, especially, exist now in a state of hypervigilance on matters involving sexual violence, predation and institutional response, and Oregon State's own history—stained by the 1998 gang-rape involving two Beavers football players and restored by a president who, until the Heimlich affair, was lauded for his sympathy for survivors—has left the school particularly woke. En route to the ballpark, in fact, one could grab the latest issue of the student weekly, The Baro, with a cover headline CONSENT IS MANDATORY and four stories on sexual assault dominating the pages inside.
So it was no shock to hear the Goss Stadium PA announcer warn, beforehand, that "racist or sexist" behavior toward players or coaches or team representatives would not be tolerated. But Heimlich's presence had a way of making the familiar uncanny, of charging even that benign voice, blending as it did with hundreds of others as the evening progressed. Some of them—still shaken by last June's revelation of Heimlich's 2012 guilty plea in Washington state, his overnight switch from major league prospect to national pariah, and OSU's decision to let him return this year—spoke softly.
"It felt like a betrayal," said Madeline Gorchels, 24, who is so devoted to Beavers baseball that she followed the team to Omaha last June for the College World Series and slept in a tent. "Goss Stadium had been a safe place for me, and suddenly it was tainted by the worst associations of my life."
Gorchels was sexually assaulted by a teenage neighbor at five years old, and the Heimlich news left her in a despair so searing that she spent two hours in a closet, trembling. But she felt it important this season to bear a kind of witness, attending three of Heimlich's earlier starts, clapping for every Beaver but him, taking heart from how she managed to stay cool. Tonight's game felt different. "It's harder than usual," Gorchels said from her family's seats along first base, watching Heimlich wind up. "Things are kind of ... um, bubbling up."
Other voices rose from within; in truth, it's impossible to watch Heimlich pitch now without wondering. A glance at the dugout: What do his teammates, especially the ones with sisters, think? A glance at the scouts: Who will dare draft him? And, always, a glance at Heimlich himself: Was he guilty? Is he a pedophile? An innocent? And why wonder about him at all? What about the victim?
Heimlich, a senior majoring in speech communication, knows that the voices are out there—loud, soft or nagging inside people's heads—each time he pitches or goes to a store or meets someone new. Two days before the Oregon game, he tried explaining to SI his strategy for living with society's most despised label. He didn't flinch when it was suggested that some consider him a monster.
"That goes down to what I can and can't control," Heimlich said. "I can worry about the draft, I can worry about what teams think, I can worry about what fans think. Or I can control what I can control. I can compete. I can give it everything I can when I'm on the field, I can prepare as good as I can and not worry about that stuff. Or I can worry about a lot of what-ifs."
Now it was game time, 6:03 p.m. PDT, crowd noise rising. His teammates and Oregon waited. Heimlich heaved a deep breath. Then, for the 11th time since his future cracked, he stepped forward into a game, trailed by questions that will never die.
What about that little girl?
What about her?
And this, coming in from afar, a voice that's less about Heimlich than it is about us:
"What's the kid supposed to do now? Kill himself?" says a Division I head coach who has watched Heimlich closely. "I have a lot of professional baseball friends who swear they're not going to touch him... . I mean, he can't go to Japan. No independent team is going to sign him. No pro team is going to draft him. What's he supposed to do?"
Wavering on whether to read further? Understandable. This may be the worst sports story ever told. Yes, there are plenty of vile candidates, and both the pedophilia at Penn State and the spree of sexual abuse by a U.S. Olympic team doctor occupies their own horrifying classes. But once their crimes surfaced, Jerry Sandusky and Larry Nassar never had to be placed in an athletic context again. Trials began, reforms were enacted; each was locked away. The games and meets went on without them.
Luke Heimlich is still here. Last June 15, a week after The Oregonian/OregonLive broke the story of Heimlich's 2012 guilty plea, Heimlich withdrew from the team's College World Series roster and university president Ed Ray released an 11-paragraph letter that unequivocally declared, "the young girl in this matter ... was the victim of wrongdoing," while announcing: "If Luke wishes to do so, I support him continuing his education at Oregon State and rejoining the baseball team next season."
In allowing for that combination, Ray overnight made his school and city a nexus for two of mankind's oldest obsessions: abominable behavior and exceptional talent. Here in one 6' 1", 197-pound package, draped in university orange and black, stood an embodiment of both—in the extreme.
"There's nothing worse than being a sex offender or a child molester," says Elizabeth Letourneau, an expert on juvenile sex offenses at Johns Hopkins. "You could be a murderer and you don't face the same kind of social opprobrium that you do if you're a known sex offender."
"Outstanding," says Yale coach John Stuper of Heimlich, who shut out the Elis in last year's NCAA regional. "Then I'm reading how he'd be a second-round pick and thinking, This must be one of the strongest drafts in history. We've played big-time programs: LSU, South Carolina, Texas A&M. But this kid's ceiling is higher than any college pitcher I've seen in my 26 years here. He'd be my first pick."
So it is that the Oregon State baseball program, a two-time national champ and the school's standard for NCAA excellence during coach Pat Casey's 24-year tenure, assumed the features of some odd new beast. Fans delighted by last year's 56–6 season and hoping for a redemptive run to Omaha this June had no shot at sport's usual win-or-lose clarity. Heimlich's official return in February—probation completed, criminal record erased, publicly denying for the first time his niece's account—ensured a season marred by real-world issues like victims' rights, the power and reliability of child testimony, the merits of rehabilitation, legal tactics, shame, faulty bureaucracies, and, of course, perception and public image.