Heimlich makes pro debut in Mexico
The scene in Luke Heimlich's debut pitching in the Mexican Pacific League last week was electric. A sellout crowd of 12,503 was on hand at Estadio Emilio Ibarra Almada, home of Caneros de los Mochis, watching as the Caneros shut out Algodoneros de Guasave 5-0.
Heimlich was superb, allowing three hits over six innings, walking two with five strikeouts as Los Mochis ran its record to 2-0 in the winter league season.
"It was awesome," the former Oregon State left-hander said via telephone from his apartment in Los Mochis while conducting his first interview in more than a year. "It's the start of winter ball. Everybody gets excited for a new season. It was a really cool environment."
The conversation with Heimlich carried the message of the typical 23-year-old enjoying his first foray in pro baseball. But, unlike former OSU teammates Adley Rutschman, Nick Madrigal, Trevor Larnach and Cadyn Grenier, who all seem on their way to the major leagues, Heimlich's future is far more uncertain.
Rutschman, Madrigal, Larnach and Grenier were first-round draft picks. Heimlich twice went unchosen in the draft — after going 11-1 with an 0.76 ERA as a junior in 2017, then after posting a 16-3 record with a 2.92 ERA as a senior in 2018.
Heimlich possessed first-round talent. The problem was a juvenile adjudication from 2012, when he was 16, the result of a guilty plea to a charge of child molestation. The charge, brought forth by the ex-wife of Heimlich's brother and the mother of his niece, was that Luke inappropriately touched the girl's private parts at the parents' home in Puyallup, Washington, in 2011, when he was 15 and she was 6.
At his parents' behest, Luke pleaded guilty and was sentenced to two years probation, with the possibility of the adjudication being sealed from his record at the end of a five-year period. That came to pass last August. He is not a registered sex offender. There are no restrictions on what he can do with his life.
As one former juvenile prosecutor from the state of Washington told me, "legally, it's as if nothing ever happened. Luke should be free to pursue whatever course of life he wants, and nobody should hold the adjudication against him."
From the time he was accused, Heimlich has maintained his innocence. His parents, Mark and Meridee Heimlich, believe him and stand behind him.
As Luke's case was being adjudicated in 2012, the Heimlichs' public attorney led them to believe chances were strong that, if Luke fought the charges, he would be judged guilty by the court. The attorney expressed the view that the court system favors the testimony of the victim. And the parents say they wanted to spare Luke's niece the trauma of being placed on the witness stand.
"In the court of law, we didn't think I stood a fair chance; that was the advice we had been given," Luke told Sports Illustrated last year. "We thought pleading guilty was going to give me the best chance for a normal life, and give our family a best chance at reconnecting and being able to move past the whole event."
(The ex-prosecutor told me it's common for people to plead guilty to an offense they didn't commit, given the potential ramifications.)
Mark Heimlich told me last year that, since the 2012 court proceedings, law experts have told him there were legal options he didn't know were available at the time. Given the circumstances, if he could have accomplished it without putting his granddaughter through turmoil, he would have not had him agree to a guilty plea.
After news surfaced late in Heimlich's junior season at Oregon State — the first time his coaches and teammates learned of the court case — he withdrew from the team during the NCAA tournament. He did not pitch in the College World Series and was not taken in the draft that summer.
Allowed to return for his senior year, Heimlich had another outstanding season, earning National Pitcher of the Year honors. He again went unchosen in the draft. No major league club would sign him as a free agent, either. Heimlich will reveal little of his emotions about that.
"I didn't have expectations going into (the drafts)," he said. "I'm fortunate I had other opportunities to play pro ball afterward."
Heimlich's agent, Dan Rosquete, worked to get him a job pitching professionally. Opportunities to pitch in Canada and in the independent Atlantic League came up, Both chances washed away because league officials didn't want to deal with the public-relations aspect of signing Heimlich.
Last August, Heimlich signed with a club in Taiwan, flew there and trained for a month before the Chinese Pro League blocked the signing. Finally this year, Heimlich was cleared to pitch for Tecolotes de los Dos Laredos of the Mexican League. He went 8-7 in 21 starts in the hitting-dominated league, yielding 141 hits with 39 walks in 118 innings. He was eighth in the league in ERA (4.58) and ninth in strikeouts (109) on a team that went 27-32 and did not make the playoffs.
Now Heimlich is pitching in the other Mexican pro league, this one stocked with a number of former major league and Triple-A hitters. He maintains his hope that he'll get the chance to pitch in the United States and, one day, in the major leagues.
"Luke is doing the only thing he can do — keep the faith, abide by the law, work hard and hope for an opportunity," Rosquete said. "Luke deserves that. He is doing his best. Based on what he has gone through, that is better than most people could do. Most people would have given up by now and blamed everybody else. Luke has never blamed anyone."
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Heimlich had to wait nearly a year for his first pro opportunity. At first, it looked like it would happen in Taiwan.
"That was a little disappointing," he said. "I was enjoying it there. I was practicing with the team there and threw some intrasquad (scrimmages). But I prefer not to look back. It's always best to find the next opportunity and keep going."
Heimlich flew back to the U.S. in September and spent most of the next six months with his family in Puyallup.
"I took only three weeks off from throwing in that whole period," he said.
The Mexican League is not quite the quality of the Mexican Pacific League, in which he is now pitching. That's because many players who play in MLB-affiliated ball in the U.S. come to Mexico to play winter ball. Both leagues are probably somewhere between Double-A and Triple-A quality.
"Talking to other players across the (Mexican Pacific League), the overall level is a little lower than Triple-A," Heimlich said. "There are a couple of lineups that could compete at Triple-A. On one team, seven of nine starters had big-league time. It's definitely good competition."
The Mexican League, with 16 teams, runs its season adjacent to the U.S. pro system, from April to September. The Mexican Pacific League, with only 10 teams, offers a 120-game schedule that extends from October to December, with playoffs in January.
"They're different cities and different owners," Heimlich said.
Both leagues have limits on international players, meaning from anywhere outside of Mexico.
The Mexican League allows eight internationals, the Mexican Pacific League seven. Dos Loredos had three U.S. players. Los Mochis has two — Heimlich and pitcher Scott Harkin, 28, who played for Sonoma State.
"There are a lot of guys who played in the (Mexican) summer league who don't get offers from the winter league," Heimlich said. "I was excited to get a job offer for winter ball."
The Mexican League is a hitters' league for a couple of reasons.
"Most leagues use Rawlings baseballs," Heimlich said. "The baseballs we used were Franklin baseballs — the kind that fly a lot. That may have had an effect. We played in at least four stadiums over 7,000 feet at elevation. The ball flies throughout the league a lot.
"I struggled a little in the first half, switching from pitching once a week in college to a five-day rotation. I was fatiguing a little bit more. We changed things mechanically, and my ERA was two runs lower the second half of the season."
At Oregon State, Heimlich relied primarily on his fastball and slider. Since then, he has worked on a changeup.
"I put a big emphasis on it this season," he said. "It's gotten a lot better. It's second to my fastball now. In recent starts, I've seen good progress. Now I'm adding a fourth pitch — a knuckle curve, with bigger break and more depth to it."
He is developing it by looking at pitching metrics, by discussing pitch grips with teammates and by using Rapsodo pitch tracking technology.
"When you throw pitches in bullpen (sessions), it gives feedback on the speed and spin efficiency," he said. "You can tinker with how to release the ball."
Heimlich was appreciative of his time spent in Mexico through the summer.
"It was really cool — teams spread all throughout Mexico, all the way south to Cancun," he said. "I got to travel all through the country, see some new places and enjoy playing baseball."
Heimlich's command of the Spanish language is "not great." He took two years of classes in high school and one term at OSU.
"Reading and writing, I can understand and get by," he said. "When the (Mexican) coaches address us in team meetings, I'm usually lost right away. About half of the players can speak pretty good English, though, so they can translate for me when need be."
Heimlich holds a degree in communications from OSU, with a grade-point average of 3.3. He looks back at his time there fondly.
"I still think of Corvallis as a second home," he said. "I can't thank Beaver Nation enough for the tremendous support."
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Heimlich spoke freely through most of our half-hour interview. His words were more measured when asked questions regarding his feelings about the effects of the court case on his life and baseball career.
Has he felt pressure pitching this season because of the public attention created by his legal situation?
"Not at all," he said. "It's still just baseball. I'm just enjoying it."
The legal situation and his baseball career, he said, "are completely separate issues."
"Once I'm on the field, I'm just playing baseball," Heimlich said. "Anything that happens off the field doesn't become a thought once I'm out there playing."
Heimlich is playing for peanuts compared to the $2 million signing bonus he'd have received as a first-round draft pick. Is there any bitterness? Does he feel he has been treated unfairly through all of this?
"I don't feel bitter," is all he would say.
I asked if he thinks he will be allowed to pitch in the U.S. at some point.
"I do," Heimlich said. "I don't have a timeline on it. I'm still enjoying playing, I'm getting new opportunities, and I don't plan on stopping any time soon."
Does he think he'll ever get a shot at the major leagues?
"I do," he said, pausing and adding, "but I can't control what other people think."
I asked Heimlich where he gets the strength for his countenance.
"It starts with my family," he said. "They've supported me through everything. My dad is a cool and collected person. I get that side of my personality from him."
Then, he offered a personal adage: "Whatever happens, you take it with a grain of salt and find a way to move forward. Nothing is final. You can always find a way to make things better or worse, depending on how you respond."
Rosquete will continue to pound the pavement on behalf of Heimlich.
"I don't know what the future is going to bring," Rosquete said. "I do have hope that someone will find the way to do the right thing. The world is such an unforgiving place.
"I'm thankful for the opportunities provided in Mexico. I've come to know Luke and his family. I fully believe in Luke's integrity and choose to stand by him. I hope someone in the U.S. gives him an opportunity, too, because I believe he has earned it."