Wittels Moves Forward
The hitting streak is over, the controversy is not, but Garrett Wittels keeps focused
MIAMI—The man with the second-longest hit streak in Division I history is a deep-voiced, confidently combative personality who has made major headlines on and off the field.
His 56-game hit streak, which ended on opening night of the 2011 season with an 0-for-4 performance in Florida International's loss to Southeastern Louisiana, enhanced his baseball profile.
But in December, Bahamian police charged him and two other men with raping a pair of 17-year-old girls in a hotel room at the Atlantis Resort and Casino.
Wittels, 20, and his two 21-year-old friends professed their innocence, saying the sex was consensual.
"That's fine," Wittels said when asked about his accusers, whose version of that night's events differs from his. "Every single night I put my head on that pillow, I know exactly what went on that night. I have no trouble sleeping at all."
Asked what his family had to say about the incident, Wittels replied: "The biggest thing really is just putting myself in a bad situation."
A preliminary hearing on the felony charge has been set for April 18.
Until then, Wittels will try to focus on baseball. And focusing is something Wittels does well, said FIU outfielder Pablo Bermudez.
"He (was) the perfect person to handle the streak," Bermudez said. "I don't think he ever worried about the streak. It was always about us winning."
FIU did a pretty good job of that last year, finishing 36-25 and winning the Sun Belt Conference's postseason tournament. Wittels led the team in batting average (.412), on-base percentage (.462), hits (100), doubles (21) and RBIs (60).
A native of Bay Harbor Islands, Fla., Wittels went undrafted after hitting .420 with six homers and 29 RBIs as a senior at Miami's Krop High School.
There was little fanfare when he hit .246/.323/.314 with one homer in 46 games as an FIU freshman.
Wittels emerged midway through last season, and FIU coach Turtle Thomas elevated him to the third spot in the lineup, where he remains. Wittels improved his slugging percentage to .539 last season and earned Sun Belt player of the year honors.
But while all his other numbers were nice, it was the hit streak that gave him national prominence. And as his stature in the game grew, so did his look.
"Like my little sister said, the streak is all in my hair," said Wittels, who hadn't cut his long locks for 13 months—until Saturday, one day after his streak was stopped.
Dealing With Controversy
Unlike the streak, one thing that may not end anytime soon is the controversy over the events in the Bahamas.
FIU, often lost in the shadow of its college neighbor, the University of Miami, finally seemed to have the stage to itself with the Wittels streak. But after his arrest, FIU shielded Wittels from the media for two months.
When Wittels was finally made available, the invitation came with a threat. Any media member who asked a non-baseball question would have his press credential revoked, and the news conference would immediately end.
FIU backed off on the day of the news conference, allowing the media to ask whatever questions they wanted while promising to answer only those that had to do with baseball.
FIU also caught heat for allowing Wittels to play while rape charges are pending, but athletic director Pete Garcia talked about how his family once fled communist Cuba, where you are "guilty until proven innocent."
Said Garcia: "In a democracy, you are innocent until proven guilty. A lot of people have given up their lives for our democracy."
Thomas, FIU's coach, stuck to baseball when he said Wittels is as clutch a player as he has seen in his 34 years in the game, which includes stints as an assistant at Arizona State, Louisiana State, Miami, Georgia Tech and Clemson.
"On scout day, he ran a 6.76 in the 60(-yard dash)," Thomas said. "He's also 91-92 (mph) off the mound. He has the speed, he has the arm, and he can square the ball up as often as anyone you'll see."
Still, scouts do not consider Wittels an elite prospect, and there are questions MLB scouting directors will need to ponder before drafting him:
• Is he a one-year wonder? Before last season, he had done little of significance. And his slow start on opening weekend—one single in 11 at-bats—will only increase the pressure on Wittels.
• Is he a character risk? Wittels and FIU say no, but the events in the Bahamas raised concerns and could cause teams to pass on the player.
• Does he project as a major leaguer? Defensively, he doesn't project as a shortstop and would likely have to move back to second base. And although he has decent speed, he only stole four bases last season.
His best projectable tool is his ability to hit for average, but he is not a home run source. Further, Wittels has not yet learned to play small ball. He had 243 at-bats last season and drew just 22 walks, and he often fails to work the count, which was the case when his streak was snapped. He saw nine pitches that night and swung at seven.
Wittels, though, remains focused.
"I can't worry about the media, and I can't worry about the haters," he said. "I can only control what I can control."
After his streak was over—Southeastern Louisiana's third baseman made a diving stop of a ground ball to seal the deal in his last at-bat—Wittels made it clear he feels he will be vindicated in the end.
"I'll break history somehow," he said. "I plan on playing baseball for a long time."