NEW YORK — Joe DiMaggio, Yankee Clipper. Garrett Wittels, Jewish Hitter.
The first is an icon, the other started the 2010 college baseball season at Florida International University as a virtual unknown. Now both are inextricably linked to the number 56, and FIU is hoping to send Wittels’ popularity soaring with a grassroots campaign to win him the ESPY award as male college athlete of the year.
Wittels, a 20-year-old sophomore, finished this season sitting on a 56-game hitting streak, the second-longest in college baseball history. The total matches DiMaggio’s legendary Major League record set in 1941, a mark that most baseball observers would say was even more impressive than his marriage to Marilyn Monroe (after all, two other men managed that feat).
Of course Wittels, who is Jewish, may have more in common with another baseball Hall of Famer: Sandy Koufax, the Dodgers’ lefty who famously refused to pitch in the World Series on Yom Kippur.
Wittels will attempt to break the collegiate record of 58 consecutive games held by ex-Major Leaguer Robin Ventura next spring.
It’s an unlikely accomplishment considering that Wittels was a utility infielder who barely managed a .250 batting average as a freshman at Miami’s Florida International. His streak started in February with a bloop bunt single against the University of Maryland — and he never stopped hitting this season, propelling him into the national spotlight as both the poster boy for FIU and NCAA baseball. His success earned him the ESPY nomination, ESPN’s version of the Oscars.
His sudden success story is particularly amazing for many members of Miami’s Jewish community, where Wittels grew up and attended Jewish day school until middle school, and his father is a well-known orthopedic surgeon.
“I was speaking with a very prominent member of the community, who is also a member of the Jewish federation,” Mark Rosenberg, FIU’s president, told JTA. “He asked me, ‘What do you think of Garrett Wittels?’ I said, ‘You know his father.’ He says, ‘Who is his father?’ ‘Michael Wittels.’ He says, ‘You’re kidding me.’ He had operated on the guy’s wife.”
Wittels batted .412 with 60 runs batted in this season for FIU, and he’s playing now for the Peninsula Oilers in the Alaska College Summer Baseball League.
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 one-time 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.
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.”
Like many young people — Jewish or otherwise — Wittels’ parents are his biggest advocates. Michael Wittels lashed out recently at Dave Winfield after the Hall of Fame outfielder and current baseball analyst downplayed the younger Wittels’ streak when comparing it to DiMaggio’s because college players use metal bats, as opposed to the wooden bats used in the majors.
Now his father is calling on the Jewish community to help his son win the ESPY, which would be a first for a Jewish baseball player.
“Jews usually don’t vote in these types of contests,” Michael Wittels said. “When there is trouble, we send money to help. If the State of Israel goes to war tomorrow and needs a fund, the Jewish community gets out there, and we all send a check.
“I don’t know if we will rally around this kid, because I don’t know if we as a nation put any emphasis on this. … But the only chance this kid might have is if every Jew votes for him.”