Tuesday, November 29, 2011

Pitcher Josh Lueke paid his debt to society for a sex offense, but the press won't let him move on

John Romano, writing for the St. Petersburg Times, did the literary equivalent this morning of arching his eyebrow, then, in the de rigueur fashion of newspapermen who can't trip over one another fast enough to out-zero-tolerance-talk the next when it comes to violence against women, spent an entire column wringing his hands and mouthing concern over the Tampa Bay Rays' acquisition of  Josh Lueke, 26, a right-handed reliever traded by the Seattle Mariners last weekend.

You see, Mr. Lueke has a 98 mph fastball, a killer split-fingered fastball, and a conviction for a sex crime. It's the latter that caused Mr. Romano to arch his eyebrow and harrumph his indignation in the court of last resort, the sports pages of the St. Petersburg Times.

In May, 2008, Mr. Lueke had a sexual encounter with a then-22-year-old woman in Bakersfield, Ca. She told authorities she'd bar-hopped with a group of minor league players. She passed out in an apartment Mr. Lueke shared with a teammate. When she awakened, she said she realized she'd been sexually attacked and filed a rape complaint. One year later, Mr. Lueke was linked to the woman through DNA and was arrested and charged with rape and sodomy. In 2009, he pleaded no contest to a lesser charge of false imprisonment with violence. He was sentenced to three years of probation, and 62 days in jail. Having already spent 42 days in jail, the remainder of his sentence was waived for good behavior.

Now, two days after Mr. Lueke was traded to the Rays, unlike the trial judge who sentenced Mr. Lueke, sportswriter John Romano isn't so quick to waive further punishment for good behavior. He writes: ". . . an accusation of rape? A no contest plea of false imprisonment with violence? By setting the bar lower in this case, has something been lost in Tampa Bay?" And: "You can say Lueke has already paid his debt, and everyone is entitled to a second chance. Or you can say the circumstances surrounding Lueke's case are too disturbing to ignore."

No sane and rational person in any sense condones either violence against women in general or the violence Mr. Lueke perpetrated against a particular woman. It is well to note that Mr. Lueke wasn't convicted of rape; the rape accusation was just that -- an accusation. Mr. Lueke pled guilty to a lesser offense and served a little more than a month behind bars. Why does a district attorney allow plea bargains? Often it's because he's not sure he'll get a conviction for the more serious offense. 

The reality is that if people like Josh Lueke knew their guilty pleas to lesser offenses would bar them from their chosen professions, they would be far more likely to roll the dice with a trial on the more serious offense. With rape charges, there is a good chance the defendant will prevail. Is that what John Romano wants? Seriously?

And contrary to Mr. Romano's assertion, the circumstances surrounding Mr. Lueke's case were not "ignore[d]": he was charged, jailed, and pled guilty to a crime. He has paid his debt to society, and he's been trouble-free since this incident.

That's not good enough for John Romano. He gives Mr. Lueke a warm Florida welcome by dredging up an incident that, he suggests, should blacken Mr. Lueke for the rest of his life. In the end, Romano refuses to commit himself about whether the Rays should have lowered the bar by acquiring an accused rapist. Romano calls it a "personal" decision, offering an explanation that is as baffling as it is vapid: "This is more of an individual issue for those who care about the fortunes of a baseball team and a community. . . . . In essence, it is a question of whether you expect your ballplayers to be held to higher standards."

The "higher standards" presumably would mean that no convicted criminals need apply in major league baseball, at least none whose crimes involved women.

So what else is new for Josh Lueke?  The Mariners' front office did a lot of explaining to women's groups when Seattle acquired Mr. Lueke before last season. It even fired its pro scouting director, Carmen Fusco, in part, because he traded for Mr. Lueke without checking his background. At that time, sports writer Larry Stone offered Josh some Lueke-warm support, but added he "wouldn't begrudge anyone who feels passionately that [Mr. Lueke] shouldn't ever get to put on a major-league uniform."  (Do you see the trend among these sportswriters?  Justice is somehow a "personal" decision.)

Mr. Lueke made a mistake that cannot be condoned; he served his time; and his probation is over. But the fourth estate won't let it be over.  No amount of punishment is enough for these guys. Their notion of "justice" does not include mercy, or rehabilitation. Is this in any sense fair?

Let's answer that question by using as our bar tough-as-nails former federal judge Kenesaw Mountain Landis, who ruled baseball with an iron fist as its first commissioner for 25 years. No commissioner of any major sport has ever approached the power the Judge wielded over baseball. Immediately upon becoming commissioner, Landis banned eight players from the 1919 Chicago White Sox team for fixing the World Series. The great "Shoeless" Joe Jackson still can't gain entry into the Baseball Hall of Fame because of that ban. No one thinks of Landis as a paragon of mercy and kindness.

What would Judge Landis do about Lueke?

No one knows for certain. But we can look for guidance to a case involving a minor league player named Alabama Pitts. In 1935, Pitts was banned from minor league baseball by the head of that league after serving a stretch in infamous prison Sing Sing for armed robbery. The crime Pitts was convicted of was far more serious than the one to which Lueke pled no contest. That's a fact.

A reporter at the Milwaukee Journal went to bat for Pitts, and said this: "Well, he's served his time. . . . What's a young fellow going to do when he gets out of prison after paying for a mistake? . . . . I hate to see anything encourage blue noses who think a guy who makes one break should sleep in the woodshed the rest of his life."

Pitts' case got kicked up to Judge Landis' office. While the nation waited for the Judge to rule, hundreds of telegrams and letters poured in wishing Pitts luck. Amazingly, one of the messages came from the victim of the robbery that sent Pitts to prison: "If the parole commissioner thinks it safe for society to send Pitts out," the man wrote, "it ought to be safe for baseball players. My sympathies are entirely with Alabama in this controversy." Read that last sentence again. It evinces a compassion that is completely out of style in our zero-tolerance times.

In the end, baseball's Grandest of all Poobahs sided with Pitts and reinstated him. The judge cited the reformation of Pitts' character and the fact it would be destructive of Pitts' rehabilitation to keep him out of baseball.

Alas, Pitts' story doesn't have a happy ending. He never became a big league star. In fact, he was slain a few years later in a barroom brawl at the age of 30. The news report of his death highlighted the fact that he was the greatest athlete ever produced at Sing Sing prison.

Alabama Pitts got a second chance. Why doesn't Josh Lueke deserve one?

Because we live in hysterical times, that's why. How else to explain the fact that America is the prison capital of the world, and that there are now more sex offenders here than there are people in some states.

But it goes beyond hysteria. Criminality has become politicized, and it is now necessary to publicly abhor even minor sex crimes to pander to women's groups. Pandering, of course, is never done for a proper reason. Usually, it is done by people who don't consider the group pandered to their equals.

We have elevated every male sexual infraction or perceived infraction to the level of "severe" on the Homeland Security Advisory System, and an assualt on a woman is deemed an assault on an entire gender. Men who misuse guns aren't considered as much of a threat as men who misuse penises.

But after reading John Romano's column, what really worries me is that we have now reached a stage I didn't think was possible: our zero tolerance, merciless, compassionless age has made Judge Landis look like a softy.

Say it ain't so, John.
Romano column: http://www.tampabay.com/sports/baseball/rays/tampa-bay-rays-raise-some-disturbing-questions-with-acquisition-of-josh/1203892