Florida International's Garrett Wittels will pursue NCAA baseball record under cloud of suspicion
Thursday, February 17, 2011; 12:08 AM
MIAMI - Florida International University shortstop Garrett Wittels said Wednesday he had slept soundly at night since being charged with rape in December and was eager to resume his pursuit of the longest hitting streak in NCAA history.
Wittels, two games away from tying Robin Ventura's 58-game record, declined to answer specific questions about what occurred Dec. 20 at a resort in the Bahamas, where he and two friends were arrested and charged with raping two 17-year-old girls. But Wittels said during his first news conference since the charges were filed that he hadn't been distracted by or worried about the case.
Two university administrators who sat alongside Wittels on Wednesday declared him free to take the field for the team's opener Friday against Southeastern Louisiana, saying FIU had decided against a suspension.
"Every single night I put my head on my pillow, and I know exactly what went on that night, and I have no trouble sleeping at all," said Wittels, 20. "I'm just worried about strikes and balls, and wins and losses right now."
Many schools require automatic suspensions when athletes are charged with felonies. FIU's policies do not dictate a specific response to such charges, but give the university latitude to take action.
"At FIU, we take accusations against any of our students seriously and follow our process," Rosa Jones, FIU's vice president of student affairs, said while reading from a statement. "We have a student code of conduct that is designed to provide our students with due process. We adhere to the U.S. concept of due process, which requires notification, hearing and documentation."
Jones left the news conference after reading the statement. FIU Athletic Director Pete Garcia declined to elaborate on the nature of the review the university conducted.
"Everything is treated case-by-case," Garcia said. "Our feeling is, we live in a democracy and you're innocent until proven guilty."
The University of Virginia last week suspended three football players indefinitely in the wake of assault charges stemming from an incident that occurred at an apartment in Harrisonburg, Va., on Jan. 30. Florida State, Oklahoma State, Missouri and Florida have all recently suspended athletes who faced felony charges.
FIU suspended three football players who were charged with felony burglary in an on-campus incident in 2004.
There is no NCAA-wide policy, however, governing member schools' behavior in such cases.
Wittels said he had received full support from coaches and teammates since the charges were filed. He said he spent many hours on the phone reaching out to them.
"We're a family, and we stay with each other no matter what," Wittels said. "We're going to be ready to go" Friday.
The decision to allow Wittels to compete while charges are pending means he could surpass Ventura's 24-year-old record on Sunday against Southeastern Louisiana in a game televised on ESPNU.
On April 18, he is due in Magistrates Court in the Bahamas for a preliminary hearing along with Robert Rothschild, 22, and Jonathan Oberti, 22, who were also charged with raping the girls, according to a court spokesperson.
The three reportedly met the girls during their stay at the Atlantis Resort and Casino on Paradise Island. Wittels's father Michael, a Miami orthopedist, denied the charges on his son's behalf during an interview with the Miami Herald late last year.
He did not return several recent calls for comment.
Michael Wittels told the Herald the girls went willingly with his son and friends from a hotel casino to a private party. He said video cameras showed the girls were the aggressors, at least in public.
"Anyone can accuse anyone of anything at any time," Michael Wittels told the Herald before adding, "He's devastated that someone would accuse him of this."
Wittels admitted that his parents told him he had put himself in a bad situation in the Bahamas, but he did not care what outsiders said about him. "I can't worry about the media. I can't worry about the haters," he said. "I can't worry about anything like that."
FIU baseball Coach Turtle Thomas said Wittels handled pressure as well as any athlete he had ever coached. He hasn't cut his hair since before the streak began last year, and on Wednesday sported a long mane of brown, curly locks. "Garrett is probably as good a clutch player and clutch hitter than any young man I've had in my 34-year-coaching career," Thomas said.
Said junior outfielder Pablo Bermudez: "I've known Garrett for a long time. When the streak was going on, nobody else on our team could have handled it as well as Garrett."
The entire team "has had my back," Wittels said. "They . . . know I'll be ready to play and ready to go."