GARRETT WITTELS DOESN'T look the part. For one thing, his face is too boyish, his hair too dark and curly for him to be mistaken for Roy Hobbs ("the hard, lanky figure"), much less Robert Redford.
For another, his playful character is better suited for Major League.
But Wittels has done something only a natural, The Natural, could do. In 2010, while playing as a sophomore infielder for Florida International University, he had a hit in each of the 56 games in which he played. That's right, he tied Joe DiMaggio.
He also batted .412 and led the team with 21 doubles and 60 RBIs. But it was the hitting streak, which began with a bunt single in the season opener against Maryland, that attracted national attention to the 20-year-old. By June 5 of that year, when FIU was looking to extend its season in the NCAA
Members of the Wittels family were among the first of the almost 3,000 fans to arrive for the noontime start in the 94-degree heat. As usual, they set aside an extra seat for Jobu, their homage to the voodoo doll employed by the Pedro Cerrano character in Major League. Their version was actually a yellow-haired Cabbage Patch doll, but one of Garrett's uncles had glued on a copy of the face of the original Jobu. Garrett doesn't believe in voodoo, instead leaning heavily on his Jewish faith. Before each game, he knelt in the outfield and recited the Shema, a Jewish prayer declaring the unity of God. On the road, he carried a prayer pillow with him.
But he also adopted a ballplayer's penchant for lucky charms. Wittels didn't cut his hair during the streak. He blared Kid Cudi's "Pursuit of Happiness" on every drive to the home ballpark, chewing a wad of watermelon Bubblicious and wearing blue stirrup socks. So Jobu was a perfect fit to become a member of the Wittels traveling party midway through the season, complete with several accoutrements: incense, Vega cigars and a minibar bottle of Captain Morgan.
That was only part of the routine. Lishka Wittels, Garrett's mother, sat in the stands doing needlepoint, keeping her hands busy while waiting for her son to get another hit. Her husband, Michael Wittels, a respected orthopedic surgeon, sat beside her or paced, depending on the game's intensity. Garrett's three siblings attended whenever they could. Sometimes the hit came late, as in Game No. 23 against Arkansas-Little Rock, when Garrett finally connected in the 12th inning.
Lishka didn't have to wait nearly that long in Game No. 56. Garrett, batting third, lashed a first-inning fastball to right-center for an RBI double. "We jumped up hysterically crying," Lishka says. "We took swigs of Jobu's rum."
FIU jumped to a 6-2 lead, and Wittels got two more hits, but Jobu had only so much power: The Big Green stormed back and won the game 15-9, ending FIU's season.
Wittels' streak was still alive, though, so he immediately set his sights on 2011 and the NCAA Division I record of 58 games, set in 1987 by Robin Ventura. Meanwhile, he'd enjoy his newfound fame. FIU started selling T-shirts that read, "I was there for the streak." The Student Alumni Association selected him to lead the annual Trail of the Torch ceremony, which kicks off the academic year. Wittels walked through campus with a lighted torch as 1,500 fellow students followed. And, swept into Hollywood with his family in tow, he strolled the red carpet as an ESPY nominee for Male College Athlete of the Year. He lost to John Wall but says, "Anywhere I walked, everybody knew me for all the good things I had done." After all, he'd barely played the season before. Like Roy Hobbs, Garrett Wittels had come out of nowhere. Unfortunately, like Roy, he didn't recognize trouble in a black dress.
FOR CHRISTMAS BREAK of his junior year, two months before the baseball season began, Wittels booked a trip with four friends to the Atlantis Resort on Paradise Island in the Bahamas, where the drinking and gambling age is 18. His father begged him not to go.
He had a deep foreboding about the trip, especially with Ventura's all-time record hanging in the balance. Given the growing attention paid to Garrett, he considered hiring a handler to protect him from people who latch onto celebrities, someone who might want to pick a fight, a woman who might want to get a piece of a budding sports star. His son passed off those concerns as, well, Dad being Dad.
Father and son had a complicated love-hate relationship. When Garrett was 6, he broke his femur in a sledding accident and spent a month in the hospital in traction; his father slept in the room every night. When Garrett healed, the
So if you're a mildly celebrated, longing-to-be-liberated college junior and your sometimes-overbearing father tells you not to go to the Bahamas, you of course immediately book a trip to the Bahamas.
Garrett and his friends arrived at Atlantis on Dec. 18. In the early-morning hours of Dec. 20, Wittels, Jonathan Oberti, Robert Rothschild, David Shapiro and Steven Tromberg gathered at the Dragon's Ultra Lounge, a bar near the resort's casino. The plan was to toast Shapiro's 21st birthday. But with the crook of two index fingers, all five men shifted their attention toward two attractive girls at the bar who were signaling for them to come over. Then all hell broke loose in seven people's lives.
One girl wore a light green top and black leggings; one wore a black dress so short that she had to pull it down to keep her skin covered. The friends distinctly remember the girls announcing that they were 18 and 19, college students from Arkansas and California. Besides, the girls had already been served at the bar. In reality, they were 17-year-old high school students from Texas.
And so begins two versions of what happened that night, the "he said, she said" of so many sexual assault cases. In this case, however, a third video-said version would emerge.
First, the "he said": According to the Miami friends, they offered to buy the girls a drink. The girls already had drinks, and the guys toasted Shapiro. Then
There, the five men say, the girls put on a show, making out with each other and, at various points, with each of the men. The girls were particularly affectionate toward Wittels; they began calling him Curly. At one point, the girl in the black dress was kissing Wittels so aggressively that he says a croupier told them to "get a room." Later, the girls told Wittels they wanted to have a foursome with him and Rothschild, so he left his bets on the craps table. As the four made their way off the floor, Rothschild slipped away to use the men's room. That didn't slow anybody down -- Wittels says the girls spotted Oberti nearby and simply drafted him to replace Rothschild. Inside the room upstairs, the men say they were happily shocked when one girl took
The "she said" version of what happened, told through police statements, is much different. (The girls and their parents declined multiple ESPN inquiries.) They say the men were aware all along that they were not of legal drinking age and that the men struck them as "tools," not objects of their desire. The details of their accounts, it turned out, would vary over time, but their overall timeline was consistent: Yes, they'd partied beforehand with drinks (the girl in green also admitted to smoking marijuana), but as soon as Wittels bought them each a Lemon Drop shot at the bar, they became nauseated. "About five or 10 minutes after getting my drink," the girl in the black dress said in her statement, "I started to feel bad. I was feeling dizzy and not having control over my body." She said she remembered playing craps but then began to black out and woke up to find her arms pinned to a hotel bed by one of the men (her statement said she didn't remember which man did what, just the events that transpired), who was forcing her to perform oral sex. Across the room, she recalled, she saw her friend in bed with two men while other men were just "standing around." The girl ?in green said that around 3 a.m., they left Room 3544 in a panic.
In the morning, they say, the girl in the black dress told that story to her father, whom they had accompanied to the Bahamas. In a matter of hours, the girls had met with Royal Bahamas police officers and filed a complaint. By that evening, three police officers were scouring the hotel, looking for Curly and his friends.
Oberti looked down and saw a text from Rothschild. After the previous wild night, the five men had spent the day hanging out at Atlantis' man-made Lazy River, then split up to relax before a late dinner downstairs. Rothschild never showed up at Carmine's restaurant, falling asleep in his room. Oberti chuckled as he looked at the first line of the message.
"Where are you guys?" Rothschild asked.
As Wittels and the others laughed about Rothschild's nap, Oberti saw a second sentence that sucked the funny out of the situation.
"Cops are here," the end of the text read.
The group remained at the table for a few minutes, unsure whether
With the cops standing by, Rothschild threw on some clothes. The other four realized the reality of the situation when Rothschild walked to the restaurant with the three police officers. Within minutes, they were at a police substation at Atlantis, handing over watches, phones and shoelaces. None of them had ever been arrested before, they said, and they assumed that if they were polite and calm, everything would work out.
They arrived at the jail in nearby Nassau around midnight. This was not Paradise Island. "It was the most disgusting thing," Wittels says. "Rats and cockroaches, and literally liquids on the floor."
Their accommodations consisted of a bare, black-walled 6-by-8-foot cell. Sleep was hard to come by. Using their shoes for pillows, they lay on the floor, head-to-head, foot-to-foot. Whenever one felt the urge to turn, they would do so in unison, spooning as if in some wartime prison camp. "There's no way this was rape," Wittels told a cop at one point.
"They'll look at the video, and you guys will be out in the morning," the officer responded.
In the meantime, lawyer Wayne Munroe, former president of the Bahamas Bar Association, took on the case. (Later, the families of the men joined together to hire Miami lawyer Richard Sharpstein to oversee the legal defense.) Defense lawyers face an uphill battle in the Bahamian legal system, where accused rapists are arrested first, questioned later. "If somebody is charged with rape, the general inclination is to think there must be something to it," Munroe says.
Munroe did manage to get two of the friends, Shapiro and Tromberg, released within 72 hours. Police believed they had not been in the room when the alleged assault occurred. Wittels, Rothschild and Oberti went before a judge on Dec. 23. He released them on a $10,000 cash bond. They would have to return to court in the next few months to face charges that could send them to jail for life.
The story became known in the U.S. when The Miami Herald reported the arrests on Dec. 27. "It was like an atomic bomb," Wittels says. Suddenly wherever he walked, everyone knew him for what he was accused of.
The day the news broke, TV trucks showed up outside the family's house. Later, Wittels said he received a letter from FIU telling him that he was forbidden from living on campus, from eating in several campus restaurants and from walking on certain sidewalks near student housing complexes. He feared his 16-year-old brother and 12-year-old sister would have to endure having classmates call their brother a rapist. Local papers, including FIU's student paper, The Beacon, wrote editorials questioning whether Wittels should be allowed on the field.
On Feb. 16, 2011, at a contentious news conference, the university finally announced that he could play while Bahamian due process ran its course. Wittels was relieved, sort of, to get a shot at three more games and Ventura's record. "Honestly, baseball is very important," he says. "I love baseball. I was so proud of myself for getting to 56 games. All the hard work I had put in was starting to pay off. But this was a much bigger picture -- to see my name as a rapist. This was a lot more. This was my actual life."
Two days later -- opening day at home against Southeastern Louisiana -- Wittels stuck to the rituals that had seen him through his sophomore season: the same pregame song, same socks, same watermelon gum, same outfield prayer. The day's at-bats will forever be burned into his brain. Hitting third,
It's the third at-bat that still bothers him. "Maybe if I would have taken my base I would have had another at-bat in the ninth inning," he says. "Looking back, the one thing I did throughout my whole streak was that I was very, very unselfish. I took the walks when I needed to walk, bunted when I needed to bunt. And the first time that I was selfish, it ended. Did that night in the Bahamas have anything to do with the streak ending? Who knows. The baseball gods are the baseball gods."
After the game, a 10-2 FIU loss, opposing starter Brandon Efferson shook Wittels' hand and apologized for breaking the streak. When Wittels walked into the locker room, his teammates gave him a standing ovation. Not bothering to shower, he then walked outside into the embrace of his family. "I remember walking with my dad to the side, and I just broke down," says Wittels. "I really just fell to the ground. I'm not sure if I was relieved or if I was just saddened from the whole situation."
That night, after Garrett came home, everyone in his family took turns cutting his hair.
THERE WAS STILL a season to play, with hostile crowds chanting "No means no-o" in every road ballpark. Wittels can perfectly mimic the cadence of the insult, softly clapping his hands the way rival fans did. With the rape charge still hanging over him, the FIU junior batted .345, leading the Golden Panthers in hits.
Lost in all the headlines and outcry was the fact that the "she said" side of the story was eroding. Bahamian authorities had discovered that only alcohol -- no date-rape drugs -- was found in the blood tests of the two girls. Then a lawyer for each girl contacted Wittels via letter to ask whether he had insurance coverage. Sharpstein, the stateside lawyer for Wittels and his friends, feels the letters indicated that they were looking more for money than for justice.
He soon learned that the father of the girl in the black dress, whom the girls had consulted with the morning after the incident, had a history. He was once a producer of Racetrack Girls Go Nutz, a seedy knockoff of the Girls Gone Wild video series. In 2004, his videos drew the ire of NASCAR, which launched a series of legal maneuvers to stop the producers from filming. NASCAR claimed that the man's shooting plans included hiring "an actress who will falsely claim to have been raped or sexually assaulted at a NASCAR-sponsored event."
By May, the video from Atlantis was finally obtained by the defense. The Miami Herald reported that the footage from the surveillance tapes on the night in question cast serious doubt on key parts of the girls' stories. In their police statements, both girls had written that they'd lost control minutes after doing a shot that Wittels bought them at Dragon's bar. But the video shows the girls entering the casino from the bar at 1:37 a.m. and spending 23 minutes there without fainting or falling down. For the first 17 minutes, they ensconce themselves at a craps table, kissing repeatedly. The scene is heated enough that the casino security worker trains a camera on the girls, zooming in after one of their lip-locks. The girl in the black dress then turns her attention to Wittels. She kisses him and embraces him as he pulls her close. The girls huddle with Rothschild for a triple kiss. At 1:54, the girl in green bends down to take off her shoes, and then the party leaves the craps table. The girls stop at a blackjack table and play a few hands. Then Wittels and Oberti escort them to the elevator as Rothschild veers off searching for
Fast-forward 43 minutes, and the tapes show a lump of clothing flying out of the room and onto the hallway floor. Seconds later, the girl in green emerges, now dressed in a white T-shirt given to her by Oberti. Contrary to her police statement, she is walking. She collects her clothes. Nine seconds later, her friend -- back in her black dress -- joins her in the hall. Neither girl runs in fright. Neither appears hurt or distraught.
This past January, in an interview with ESPN's Outside the Lines, prosecutor Garvin Gaskin admitted that there were "glaring inconsistencies" between what the girls had told the police and what the tapes showed. Even so, the prosecution's case proceeded, with a Nassau judge setting the trial date for mid-June of 2011.
The timing was brutal for Wittels. The MLB draft began June 6. He'd left FIU a year early because teams were saying they liked him as early as the third round. But on draft day, with Wittels still an accused rapist, the phone never rang. Thirty teams, 1,530 picks, but not one for the guy with a 56-game hitting streak.
Two weeks after the draft, on June 20, the Bahamian attorney general filed a nolle prosequi (will not prosecute), meaning the charges were dropped. Wittels could get on with his life. But would that life include baseball?
ONE OF THE beauties of baseball is that every once in a while, a fielder will drop a ball in foul territory and give the batter another chance. The good hitters take advantage of that second life by using the previous pitch to
It's an 80-degree day in Aventura, Fla., two months before the start of spring training. Last July, a few weeks after Wittels was passed over in the draft and with the charges against him dropped, teams began calling him. Wittels eventually signed with the Cardinals and was assigned to their short-season Class-A affiliate, the Batavia Muckdogs. Manager Dann Bilardello called Wittels into his office right away and said: "I don't care about your past. I'm excited to have you on this team. Just steamroll forward."
And he did. Wittels hit a respectable .262 as the starting shortstop for Batavia. At one point, Wittels got on another hitting streak. It lasted long enough, 14 games, to spark the Cardinals' excitement about his 2012 season. "He has a willingness not just to work but to learn," says Jeff Albert, a hitting coach for the Cardinals who has overseen Wittels' off-season batting-practice workouts.
That's why Wittels is here at a Jewish Community Center in Aventura, crouched in a sprinter's stance, attached to a sled loaded with 50 pounds of weight. On his right wrist, he wears a red kabbalah string-bracelet that according to tradition "wards off the evil eye." On the left, he totes a bracelet that reads tract gut vet zein gut, a Yiddish phrase that translates as "Think good and it will be good." He lurches forward, pumping his arms and pulling the sled for 30 yards. Wittels completes the assignment, but it's not easy. Behind him, another man loses his shoe and stops the drill. Wittels is sweating and breathing hard. It feels good, equal parts exhaustion and excitement. "You've got to keep your head down and continue on with life," Wittels says. "Learn from the past and learn from history. Just keep going in the right direction."
This, it seems, is the life Garrett Wittels will live with.