Hitting new highs … and lows

The college baseball season begins today, and there’s plenty to talk about.

The new aluminum bats the NCAA has imposed on the sport are supposed to be safer than ever, and some say will reduce home runs in the sport by half after their use in fall baseball. Speed-up rules similar to but not as drastic as those used in South Jersey’s Diamond Classic high school tournament have been instituted as well.

But on this night, many eyes will be focused on southern Florida as Florida International University junior Garrett Wittels resumes his quest for college baseball immortality. He likely already has some measure of it, but thanks to his offseason he may have altered for what he’ll be remembered.

Wittels had at least one hit in the last 56 games the Golden Panthers played last year, ending the season just two shy of Robin Ventura’s record 58-game hitting streak with Oklahoma State in 1989. FIU opens its season tonight at home against Southeastern Louisiana. And just FYI, the all-division college hitting-streak record is 60 games, by Damian Costantino at Division III Salve Regina (R.I.).

Wittels became something of a national sensation as the streak grew last year, with ESPN giving daily updates and following the team all the way through its ouster in an NCAA regional. According to one source tonight’s game is supposed to be nationally televised, though I couldn’t find it in my cable guide.

But the tenor of the chase took on a  much different tone after Wittels and two friends were arrested in the Bahamas just before Christmas on rape charges after two 17-year-old girls followed them from the hotel bar to a room for a party. The three were released on $10,000 bond and have an April 18 hearing.

Innocent until proven guilty is one of the hallmarks of our justice system, and Wittels and his entire family are adamant that he is not guilty of doing anything wrong beyond using bad judgment. “I put myself in a bad situation,” he was quoted as saying. But is the streak so important that his resumption of the chase can’t wait until this cloud is no longer hanging over his head?

Part of what made the streak so exciting last year is that Wittels was only a sophomore, meaning he has two years of college left, plenty of time to get this situation cleared up and resume his quest free of other distractions. His prospects in this year’s Major League Draft are uncertain — he hit .417 last year but didn’t walk much or hit for a lot of power — so he could definitely be with the Golden Panthers for two more seasons.

With the hearing coming up in April, he could continue working out and if he was cleared of the charges then simply resume the season at that point. Though Wittels’ father insisted that the incident had nothing to do with FIU because it was off campus and during winter break, the school’s student code of conduct indicates that offenses including those alleged to have been committed by Wittels are punishable whether they took place on or off campus.

Despite the fact that many schools suspend student-athletes who are arrested — including FIU with a trio of football players in 2004 — the school cleared Wittels Wednesday to play in the season opener. The decision was announced at a press conference at which Wittels was present, but before which media members were cautioned not to ask him about the case.

“Every single night I put my head on the pillow, I know what went on that night and I have no trouble sleeping at all,” Wittels has said. That’s fine, but his ultimate guilt or innocence is now in the hands of the judicial system and it probably wasn’t the smartest thing to say with the outcome still in doubt.

So let’s say he hits in all three games against Southeastern Louisiana this weekend, extending his streak to 59 games and breaking Ventura’s mark. Will there be a celebration? Maybe for Wittels and the FIU baseball team, but the looming charges will make it a lot harder for many to celebrate the achievement.

And if he is stymied by the pitching of the Lions, who set a school record with 40 wins last year? Then the arrest and impending hearing was a distraction, no matter how much he insists they won’t be.

So it appears that this is a no-win situation, making it more puzzling that all parties would insist on throwing him out there now. But the decision has been made, and everyone will have to live with the consequences. I honestly hope he is innocent of the charges against him, and we can just enjoy the game. I just wish we could wait until we knew more, so I would have a better idea of how to react.