MIAMI — Florida International shortstop Garrett Wittels still needs a haircut.
He’s been tempted over the past eight months. The dark locks now extend well below the helmet of college baseball’s reigning hit king. But superstitions are superstitions, and Wittels vowed not to get them trimmed until his 56-game hitting streak — still going from last season — ends.
“Gets annoying sometimes,” Wittels said, tugging one of his curls. “But it’s not that bad.”
Hair, Wittels can laugh about.
But there’s more hanging over him than that.
Wittels’ status for the Feb. 18 start of FIU’s season — when he was to resume pursuit of Robin Ventura’s 58-game Division I record streak set in 1987 — is unclear, after he was charged in a rape case in the Bahamas in December.
The university’s decision on his status is expected next week, although the 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.
He 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 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 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.”
That includes the FIU clubhouse.
The attention Wittels’ streak generated last season never seemed to truly bother teammates. The only thing that the Panthers regularly bicker over is the type of music that should blare pregame — rap, country or reggae.
“We’re focused on the whole team and that’s really what’s important,” Thomas said. “From what I know, they’ve handled it very well. They understand. It’s good for them. It’s good for the program. It’s good for their maturation process as kids and ballplayers to play with a little expectation on them.”
Wittels went through that expectation process last summer.
He grew up in the Miami area, and other than a stint playing summer ball in Virginia in 2009, had not spent extensive time away from home in his life. So his 2010 summer season was about as far from Miami as possible — in Alaska, 5,000 miles away.
He’s allergic to cats; his host family had them as pets. He felt at times like he needed a break from the whirlwind season. He hit .254 in 32 games. And his hitting streak — his personal one, anyway — ended.
But the hair remains.
“I can’t quit,” Wittels said.
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.”