Since his days as a Little Leaguer, Garrett Wittels's baseball-obsessed grandfather Bernardo has called him Pete — a nod to one of the scrappiest players in the sport's history. "He said I was hard-nosed, just like Pete Rose," the soft-spoken infielder at Florida International University says proudly.
The nickname has proven prescient. Cincinnati's Rose amassed modern-era Major League Baseball's second-longest hit streak — 44 games — in 1978. It is second to only Joe DiMaggio's 56 consecutive games in 1941, one of the most venerable records in sports.
On June 5, the last day of the FIU Panthers' season, Wittels singled to extend his own streak to 56. Next spring, the 20-year-old junior will attempt to break Robin Ventura's college record. Ventura, who went on to have a 15-year big-league career, hit in 58 straight games for Oklahoma State in 1987.
In the meantime, Wittels is a slave to superstition. Since the streak began February 19, he hasn't cut his hair, and it has grown into a shaggy mop that forces him into ever-expanding hat sizes. He chews only Bubblicious watermelon-flavored gum on the field, and his uncle Edgar brings a voodoo doll to every game. Wittels's model of bat, appropriately, is the DeMarini Voodoo Black.
Unlike home run records tainted by steroid-pumped sluggers, the feat of getting at least one hit each game for weeks on end can't be aided artificially. By the time Joe DiMaggio accumulated his 50th, the streak was chasing him rather than the other way around. He refused to speak to reporters who hounded him. When he finally lost at a July game in Cleveland — his cabbie on the way to the stadium predicted he would go hitless — scribes speculated he felt relief, but it was never confirmed or denied.
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Though Wittels insists his own achievement is "nothing like a 56-game hitting streak in the Major Leagues," he can relate to the Yankee Clipper's burdened psyche. He spent the summer playing for the Peninsula Oilers in Kenai, Alaska — even there, all anybody wanted to talk about was his hitting streak. He's in no rush to experience a hitless game, but Wittels admits, "It will be a relief when the streak is over. It's always in the back of my head, even when I'm not on the field. It follows me."
The Bay Harbor Islands native, who went to Dr. Michael M. Krop Senior High, was a borderline player as a freshman in 2009, when he batted .246. But the streak — and a .412 batting average in 2010 — has Wittels fathoming a big-league career like his idols Derek Jeter and Ian Kinsler.
In the meantime, his grandfather Bernardo still calls him Pete. "My teammates have asked me: 'Why does he call you that?'" Wittels says. "I tell them: 'Don't worry about it.' I keep it between me and my grandpa."
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