On Tyreek Hill, shamed baseball prospect Luke Heimlich, and second chances

Credit: John Sleezer

Credit: John Sleezer

The first plan here was for words about the Chiefs' offense, and that will come, because goodness it could be a terrifically entertaining offense. There will be many words written. But the mind has a way of wandering, and so it was that mine locked in on Tyreek Hill, but not for the obvious reasons.

Baseball's amateur draft concluded this week. Exactly 1,204 players were selected, from presumptive future ace Casey Mize first overall to a shortstop named Tyler Webb with the final selection.

One of the biggest talents available was not selected anywhere in between, despite a second-round projection from many evaluators, a 96 mph fastball and a history of success at the highest amateur level.

The young man's name is Luke Heimlich. He's a star left-handed pitcher at Oregon State, and if you've heard of him, it's probably because he pleaded guilty in 2012 to one felony charge of molesting his 6-year-old niece. Heimlich was 15 at the time.

News broke just before last year's draft, and baseball teams scattered. Many took his name off their draft board entirely. Others studied, debated, met with Heimlich, asked questions and hired others to ask more. Even in the coldly bottom-line world of professional sports, no team deemed it a worthwhile risk to draft him even when a top-shelf talent was available for presumably generic pricing in the 20th, 30th, even 40th round.

Because the initial reaction to Heimlich's crime is revulsion. Of course it is. Anger. Fury. Disgust. You hear about a child — a kindergartner — being violated like that and the outrage comes shortly after. There is often no way to make the victim in such cases whole again. Get this despicable human out. It's natural. Easier, in some ways, but that's also a problem.

The Chiefs drafted Hill two years ago, and if you'd heard of him before that, it was probably because he pleaded guilty nine months earlier to choking and punching his pregnant girlfriend while he was a star football player at Oklahoma State. The plea agreement included a deferred sentence, no jail time and a probation that expires this summer.

The initial reaction to the Chiefs drafting Hill was revulsion. Of course it was. Anger. Fury. Disgust. You hear about a woman — a pregnant woman — being abused like that and the outrage comes shortly after. There is often no way to make the victim whole again. The reaction was natural. Easier, in some ways, but that's also a problem.

This is where my mind wandered.

Because Hill has changed my thinking on this sort of thing, and not because he is now one of the NFL's best 10 or so receivers.

One baseball man put it like this: "(Heimlich) went through the legal process. In the eyes of the law, he's no different than you or me. So what's he supposed to do? Quit? Work at a tollbooth? He's a baseball player."

Two things about those words are worth noting. First, in conversations with industry sources about Heimlich this week, several used some form of that logic. Second, none of their teams selected him. So far, at least, none have even signed him as an undrafted amateur free agent.

This is all so delicate, so precarious, so uncomfortable. The easy thing — the thing I've done in the past — is to not think about it. The easy thing is to cast these situations, these people, aside, to decide that the legal system did not do enough. But it is so obviously delusional to pretend that professional sports are somehow only for the moral.

Many good people work in professional sports, like all fields. Many awful people do, too, like all fields. Drug dealers. Cheaters. Liars. Absentee fathers, racists, jerks, and, yes, domestic abusers and child molesters.

Once the legal system has its say, everything else is public relations, and that's not said to dismiss. It's said to organize. To articulate. To be honest about what we're dealing with.

Because here's a thought that comes through from some in the game: We think he deserves a chance, but we hope someone else gives it to him.

If that chance comes, the team can justify itself. You can probably predict what will be said: "We met with him, and talked to others. We've studied this. His record is expunged. He is not a registered sex offender. He was just 15 when this happened. We believe we can help."

This is endlessly complicated. Heimlich pleaded guilty, but he has publicly and consistently said he did nothing wrong. He told Sports Illustrated he took the plea deal to avoid a trial and possible jail time, that it was the best thing for his family. And to be sure, it is not unusual for innocent people to plead guilty. Still, the plea matters. Legally, he is guilty.

We can have a debate about whether these crimes are punished justly. Compare domestic violence or child molestation to many nonviolent drug offenses, for example, and it's hard to see the balance.

But this is the legal system we have. Heimlich should be disqualified from consideration for many jobs. Teacher. Day care. But why should he be disqualified from baseball? To make ourselves feel better?

Legally, he's free to make a living. Based on projections and draft-pick value, Heimlich lost well into seven figures by not getting drafted where his abilities with a baseball alone would suggest he should.

This doesn't mean he's worthy of sympathy.

But a chance?

Tyreek Hill got that chance, and there was a time I thought the Chiefs were wrong to offer it. I was a lot like those baseball men, in that way. "Fine, fine, fine. Maybe he has a right to make a living. But not here."

At the time, I was thinking about Jovan Belcher. And thinking more about Kasandra Perkins, the woman Belcher murdered before taking his own life, and the baby girl those monstrous acts made an orphan.

Not here, I thought, but that didn't cover the full scope.

I also didn't want that here because I'm here, and we all tend to default to our comfort zones. Sometimes, that means defaulting away from fairness. Or from forgiveness.

Hill is a star now, so from a football perspective the Chiefs made out, but this is about more than that. The Chiefs have had others with ugly incidents or charges. Justin Cox. Roy Miller. Sanders Commings.

No two cases are exactly the same, and a million variables — including talent, let's not be naive — determine the outcome.

But Hill was given a second chance, and by all accounts, he has cherished it every day. He's made the most of it, and not just on the field. He went through the legal process and, so far, seems to have made himself better because of it. His is not a story of redemption. But his victim — and the child they had together — presumably benefit financially from his football success.

Heimlich is on his second chance. Oregon State gave that to him after his plea became known a year ago. He has succeeded on the mound, continued to get good grades and served as a mentor off the field. There is no certainty about whether that would continue in pro baseball. No certainty whether he would prove good enough to make the majors, or steady enough to deal with the furor that would surely come his way.

But Hill has changed my mind on this. The legal process had its say, and both Hill (lost scholarship at Oklahoma State) and Heimlich (imploded draft stock) have been further punished.

Right now, a collection of Major League Baseball teams are hoping Heimlich gets a chance in the pro ball. They just aren't willing to be the one to give him that chance.

How long should that continue? And to what end?

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