MIAMI (Miami Herald) - When Florida International University formally opens its Sun Belt baseball title defense Friday with the start of spring practice, its most famous – and embattled – member will be a part of it.
Garrett Wittels, chasing history in the shadow of facing rape charges in the Bahamas, has been cleared to practice with the team, although FIU has not yet made a decision on whether he will play when the 2011 season opens next month.
"We've got to see; we're still looking at things," FIU coach Turtle Thomas said this week, speaking publicly on the issue for the first time since Wittels' Dec. 20 arrest. "Nothing has been determined at this point and time.
"Always remember something: In this country, you're innocent until proven guilty."
Wittels and friends Robert Rothschild and Jonathan Oberti have been charged with raping two 17-year-old girls while vacationing at the Atlantis Resort and Casino on Paradise Island.
Through his father Michael, Garrett has professed his innocence, but remains in limbo until, at the very least, a preliminary hearing set for April 18.
Thomas, entering his fourth season at FIU, was reluctant to say much of anything on the matter, and for good reason. Wittels' situation has put FIU baseball in a difficult spot.
Wittels' active 56-game hitting streak was the talk of the college baseball world last spring, vaulting the little-known program into the national consciousness.
ESPN's family of networks plans to broadcast every pitch of the Golden Panthers' season-opening series against Southeastern Louisiana from Feb. 18-20.
The first two games will appear on ESPN3.com, and the finale – the game in which Wittels could break the Division I record of 58 games held by Robin Ventura – will be televised on ESPNU.
Complicating matters further: Criticism FIU might face if the school allows Wittels to play while the charges are pending. Other schools have decided to immediately suspended players charged with felonies, if not dismiss them from the team altogether.
What's known about the Wittels case is murky.In December, Wittels and his friends met the girls at the resort's Dragon's Ultra Lounge, and they all went back to room of the men. The father of one of the girls called police after his daughter and her companion returned to their hotel room. The accused admit having sex with the girls, but insist it was consensual.
Surveillance video exists, Michael Wittels said last month, showing the girls – and not the accused – were the aggressors, at least in public. Blood taken from the alleged victims showed alcohol, but no drugs, were in their system.
For FIU's part, the program has not publicly backed away from its superstar.
It's clear Wittels remains part of Thomas' plans. Thomas said this week he intends to play Wittels at shortstop this year after switching between short and second base in 2010.
As of Thursday, the third item on the team's website was a news release announcing Wittels' selection to the National Collegiate Baseball Writers of America preseason All-American team.
But coaches and players have been instructed by athletic department officials not to speak publicly about the case. That includes Wittels, who will be made available to talk about baseball and his hitting streak, but not about the felony charge.
Should Wittels be allowed to play, he will join an experienced and talented team.
All but two of FIU's position players are back from last year's conference-championshiop lineup – first baseman Tim Jobe and middle infielder Junior Arrojo.
FIU also has fortified its pitching staff with the addition of pitchers Mike Ellis, Kyle Fitzpatrick and left-hander D.J. Swatscheno, a transfer from the University of Miami who has undergone two Tommy John surgeries.