Garrett Wittels' playing status unclear
MIAMI -- Shortstop Garrett Wittels' status for the start of Florida International's season -- when he was to resume pursuit of the NCAA Division I record hitting streak -- remains unclear after he was charged in a rape case in the Bahamas in December.
Wittels has a 56-game hitting streak and is chasing the 1987 record of 58 straight games with a hit, set by Robin Ventura of Oklahoma State. FIU opens its season Feb. 18.
But there's more hanging over Wittels than the continuation of the streak.
The university's decision on Wittels' status is expected next week, although the rape charge will likely be pending for several months.
Wittels declined to discuss specifics of the case in an interview with The Associated Press, on advice of his attorneys. He was freed on $10,000 bond and allowed to return home without entering a plea. Bahamian officials do not plan to begin a preliminary evidentiary inquiry until April.
"The day that everything came out, that was the hardest day of my life," Wittels said.
Wittels is accused of forcing sex on a 17-year-old girl. The age of consent in the Bahamas is 16. Wittels was with a group of friends, some of whom were charged with raping both the female who accused Wittels and another 17-year-old as well.
"I just put myself in a bad situation," Wittels said.
Coaches and close friends say that when Wittels is on the field or in the batting cage these days, he seems the way he was last season. Wittels batted .412, was the Sun Belt Conference's player of the year -- he was tabbed Friday as the preseason pick to win that award again -- and helped FIU reach the NCAA tournament.
When the streak was in jeopardy, he was at his best, going 7-for-7 in situations where he was down to his final at-bat without a hit.
For someone who hit .246 in 2009, last season was more than a breakthrough.
"He's handled it like an absolute champ," FIU coach Turtle Thomas said. "He is solid as a rock between his ears. He's been raised to expect to do well and be the best and practice hard, play hard. He's been raised to be a winner. And he's clutch. It could end Feb. 18 or it could go a long time into 2011."
Thomas was tightlipped when asked about Wittels' legal matters, saying only he has not lost any faith in his shortstop.
"None whatsoever," Thomas said.
ESPN plans to broadcast FIU's opening series. Wittels got more media attention than he thought possible last season, and finds himself curtailing use of Facebook and Twitter because he wants to keep some sense of privacy.
The constant attention, he says, can be too much.
"You can't really worry about what people think about you," Wittels said. "The No. 1 thing I've learned throughout this whole thing, really, is that you just have to know who you are and that the people who are around you are your backbone. You'll have your fans, your haters, all these people ... but the people around you are the ones who'll have your back."
FIU will gather Saturday for its annual start-of-season baseball banquet, and Wittels plans to wear his 2010 championship ring. He's only slipped it on a few times, choosing instead to simply look at it when he needs inspiration for this season.
It's a reminder of the storybook 2010 and makes him briefly forget everything -- positive and negative -- swirling around him.
"It can't be a one-year championship. It can't be one year of hitting .400," Wittels said. "Sports is about 'What have you done for me lately.' All I'm worried about right now is balls and strikes, wins and losses, just playing ball."
Information from The Associated Press was used in this report.