If you thought Florida International University's amazing bowl win last night had wiped away the seeming curse that the sports gods have placed on the school, think again.
Trumping that news now is the arrest of FIU baseball hitting-streak phenom Garrett Wittels on rape charges in the Bahamas. The Miami Herald reports that Wittels and four buddies were all arrested on an allegation that they raped two 17-year-old girls at Atlantis on Paradise Island last week.
Wittels' father, prominent Miami orthopedic surgeon Michael Wittels, told the newspaper that his son is innocent of the charges and will be vindicated.
Understand that Garrett Wittels was more than just one of the most exciting stars in college sports this past year -- he was also billed as the next great Jewish baseball player and was compared to Sandy Koufax by the Jerusalem Post. But what makes the arrest most shocking is that Wittels isn't just Jewish by heritage; he's said to be deeply religious and as a youth made the papers for being named to the rabbi's honor roll for his dedication to Hebrew studies. His mother recently called him the "most spiritual... young athlete you'll ever meet."
Suffice it to say this allegation seems to be totally out of character for Wittels. Remember, it's still a mystery what happened that night, and he has not been found guilty of anything. Inside, read a key passage from the Jerusalem Post story about the way Wittels carried his faith on the baseball diamond.
From the story:
Like most high-level Jewish athletes, Wittels doesn't wear his Judaism on his sleeve (or his head - he's not the second coming of onetime Orthodox basketball phenom Tamir Goodman, who wore a kipah while playing).
But baseball is a game of superstitions, and it's there that Wittels' Jewish background emerges.
While his slate of of good luck rituals has been noted repeatedly in the mounting media coverage of the streak, the mainstream media has missed this one: Before each game, Wittels kneels in the outfield and recites the Shema, the Jewish prayer declaring the unity of God.
Wittels also carries a travel mezuzah, which contains the Shema prayer, and on road trips he brings a copy of the Jewish Wayfarer's Prayer, according to his mother, Lishka, a member of Miami's "Jewban," or Cuban-Jewish community.
And, she added, when FIU traveled this spring, he kept as kosher for Passover as he could.
"This is a very spiritual house," his father, Michael, told JTA. "My wife's family were Turkish Jews. We have that culture, plus all of the other meshugas" he said, referring to his son's pregame habits.
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Superstitions can cut both ways - Wittels' parents are wary of the media coverage surrounding the streak, citing their fear that others will give their son the "ayin harah," or evil eye of jealousy, his father said.
Even the name Garrett, the father added, is born of kabbalistic philosophy.
In English it means strong as an ox, but the name has seven letters - an important number in Jewish mysticism. (His name was supposed to be Nicholas Garrett, but his paternal grandmother nixed that idea as "too goyish.") As a 20-year-old, Wittels has said that he does not yet consider himself a role model, but his mother said, "the Jewishness plays a very big part in his life."
"He has said he would marry a Jewish girl and talks about how important it is to carry on the Judaism with his life," his mother said. "My son is the most spiritual, non-traditional young athlete you will ever meet. He carries his religion in his heart."