Bob Lutz

NBC World Series: Streak hasn't made Wittels change his baseball view

The goal was to get Garrett Wittels immersed in himself. A "me, me, me" conversation about his remarkable 56-game hitting streak during the 2010 college baseball season at Florida International, one that will carry over into 2011.

If you read The Eagle's story on Wittels earlier this week, you could tell that he's not exactly enamored with himself.

But if anybody can get an athlete to go all Terrell Owens, it's me. At least, that's what I thought. I'll lob him some easy ones and before you know it he'll be checking himself in a mirror.

But Wittels, who is playing in the infield for the Kenai (Alaska) Peninsula Oilers in the ongoing National Baseball Congress World Series at Lawrence-Dumont Stadium, didn't bite.

He mentioned the word "team" numerous times, and we all know there is no "I" in "team." If his long hit streak —second to Robin Ventura's 58-gamer in 1987 with Oklahoma State — has swelled Wittels' head, he's not letting on.

"There was some notoriety for sure,'' he said. "But the one thing my father, Michael, preaches to me is that I haven't done anything yet, really. As much as I've done so far, that's not really the goal. The goal is to hopefully make it to the major leagues someday. But there's a lot of work to do."

Wittels, who will be a junior at FIU, didn't play in five games last season. But he got at least one hit in the 56 in which he did play.

Nobody saw this coming, either. As a freshman in 2009, the Miami product batted .246 in 46 games with a .314 slugging percentage. Pitchers were knocking the bat out of his hands.

But it was a different Wittels last season. He started quickly, going 11 for 16 in FIU's first four games. And the hits just kept coming.

Thanks to the team's success — FIU reached the NCAA Tournament for the first time — Wittels had another focus.

"Maybe toward the end of school the hit streak and everything maybe got a little draining,'' he said. "But winning our (Sun Belt) tournament and going to the postseason was so enjoyable. I really didn't think about the streak that much.''

Wittels has hit in both of Kenai's games in the NBC World Series, but the Oilers were upset Wednesday night by the Wichita Elite Sluggers before winning a loser's bracket game Thursday morning. Hits have been harder to come by this summer, but Wittels has been a key player for Kenai.

He'll go into the 2011 season as the most talked-about college player in the country, having already hit in the same number of consecutive games as Joe DiMaggio did for the New York Yankees in 1941, a major league record many believe will never be broken.

Wittels, of course, is no DiMaggio. He's probably not even another Ventura, who had a highly productive big league career. Nobody is quite sure what Wittels is, but a hitting streak of this magnitude tickles one's curiosity.

"This summer, I've been able just to go out there and get hits, just play the game," he said. "It's been a relief not to be playing with the hitting streak. But definitely, when the fall comes I'll be able to get home and get started again trying to help my team win. We have eight returners to our starting lineup, so Florida International baseball is definitely going in the right direction."

Wittels batted .413 for FIU last season, with only two homers. But he did drive in 60 runs and had 21 doubles, so he's far from being a slap hitter. At 6-foot-1, 198 pounds, he packs a wallop.

There were eight games in which Wittels needed a hit in his final at-bat to extend the streak, and he had just one hit in 26 games of his streak.

Wittels had no trouble extending the hitting streak when he was clicking at the plate. But even when a guy hits in 56 games in a row, there can be extended periods when he struggles.

After batting .571 in his first eight games, Wittels went through a 13-game stretch when he batted .296. It dropped his overall average to .404 and there were surely some who figured the cold spell was a truer indication of his hitting talents.

But Wittels went on another tear and was consistent the rest of the season. Surprisingly, his hitting streak included only two games in which he had four hits, but in another 10 games he had three.

"Instead of looking at me for my hitting streak, I want people to look at me as a guy who always has a dirty uniform and as a guy who plays the game really hard," Wittels said. "One of the reasons I don't like talking about myself, really, is because one player on a team can't really do much. One player can go 5 for 5 with five home runs and the team can still lose. Winning a game, winning a championship, is better than any other feeling in the world.''

Don't get him wrong, Wittels likes the hitting streak. He's glad he'll have a chance to extend it when the 2011 season begins.

But when the hitting streak ends, as it inevitably will, Wittels wants to be remembered for something else.

"I got to have a phone conversation with Robin Ventura just before regionals this past season," Wittels said. "That just meant the world to me. The hitting streak means a lot but at the end of the day, if I can make it to the major leagues and put that uniform on, that would mean so much more."

I ended my conversation with Wittels by asking a hypothetical question, one I thought he might ponder.

Would he rather have the longest hitting streak in college baseball history or play in a College World Series?

Before I could get the question out of my mouth, Wittels' answer spewed.

"I'd take an 0-for-4 in the first game next season to be in the College World Series," he said.

Believe him.