Late father remains inspiration for Capps

Late father remains inspiration for Capps

There have been many moments over the past year when Twins closer Matt Capps wished that he could just pick up the phone and call his dad.

There was the day last December when he learned that he'd been non-tendered by the Pirates, the only organization he had played for in his seven years of professional baseball.

There was the Sunday morning in July when Capps, who was now closing for the Nationals, learned that he had made his first All-Star team.

And there was the night shortly before baseball's Trade Deadline when he learned he had been traded to the Twins in order to help the club try to clinch another division title.

If there were anyone that could have understood what Matt was feeling at those moments, it was his father, Mike Capps. Until his dad passed away suddenly last Oct. 22 at age 61 in Douglasville, Ga., Matt had spoken to him nearly every day, sometimes multiple times a day, and almost always after a game in which he had pitched.

The two enjoyed such a bond that even Matt's mother, Kathy Capps, has a hard time describing it.

"They had a very, very close relationship, and the first person that Matt would pick up the phone and call would be his daddy," Kathy said. "If you know Matt, then you knew his dad."

But just because his father's voice is no longer on the other end of the phone doesn't mean that Capps has stopped talking to him. Often, he listens more than he talks -- recalling the innumerable discussions the two shared and knowing just what wisdom his dad would have imparted for the situation at hand.

Baseball was something that connected father and son. Mike was his son's first baseball coach and he became a lifelong mentor and confidant.

Mike was the one who was there for his son when things were going wrong on the mound. He listened to Matt throughout the 2009 season with the Pirates, when he was having the worst season of his Major League career. His father reminded him that he would bounce back, just like he did during a rough 2004 season in the Minors before he had gone on to become Pittsburgh's closer.

And as Capps is enjoying the best season of his Major League career, he wishes that his dad were here to enjoy it with him. But he knows that his dad is playing his own special role in it.

"He is somebody that every day I think about and every day I miss," Capps said. "He's in a better place and instead of sitting on a couch watching TV, he's got the best seat in the house wherever I'm at. Still, I miss having him to fall back onto. To bounce ideas or thoughts off him or complaints or just chew the fat with him, those are the things that are hard."

When he was growing up, the two often would watch baseball together, either at Braves games not far from their home or just sitting around the television.

"I remember telling him those guys playing aren't human. They aren't human, they are machines, they are gods," Capps recalled. "I remember him laughing and saying, 'No, no, no, they are regular old people.'"

"Dad then told me, 'Somebody has to do that. Somebody has to be the best. Why can't it be you?'"

Losing a best friend

Looking back, Capps feels that his dad had an inkling that something was going to happen. A man who had survived five heart attacks and a lung operation, Mike certainly had seen his fair share of health scares in his life, but this time there seemed to be something different.

Matt and his wife Jennifer were planning to attend a friend's wedding in New York the weekend after the 2009 season had ended. It was the same weekend as an annual family reunion in Asheville, N.C., where both of his parents had grown up. But this year, the couple was planning to skip it. That was until Matt woke up Jennifer one night, saying in his sleep that they needed to go to the reunion.

So they went to North Carolina and for a few hours on Friday, Mike disappeared. Matt said the family later learned his dad had gone with his brother, Roger, who works at a funeral home in Asheville. There he had picked out his casket and everything else needed for his funeral.

And then there was the phone call just over a week later on Tuesday, Oct. 20. Matt and Jennifer had returned to their home in Sarasota, Fla., and were just returning from a trip to the grocery store to restock their house, which had been empty for the six months of the baseball season. The phone rang, and it was his dad. Matt offered to call him back in 15 minutes after the groceries were unloaded, but Mike shrugged it off saying, "No, no, don't worry about it. Sorry I bothered you."

Matt told his dad that he would call him back in the morning and Mike said that sounded good.

"There was a little pause and anytime we would hang up the phone it was 'Love you, bud' or, 'Love you.' But as clear as day it was 'I love you ... son,' " Capps said. "It even stopped me a bit. I didn't think a whole lot about it at the time, but I thought enough about it to where I remember it. And it was the last time we talked."

Later that night, just after midnight, Matt got a phone call from his younger brother, Chris Capps. Chris said that their father had fallen in the carport, hitting his head and sending him into cardiac arrest.

His father had been taken to the hospital and his mom told Matt, "I don't think he's going to make it through this."

Matt immediately started to pack to head home.

Matt arrived in Douglasville the next day and was able to see his father in the hospital, although he was unresponsive. Mike Capps passed away on Thursday, Oct. 22.

"I think he thought, 'OK, I can go now, everybody is taken care of,'" said Kathy. "He fought hard for several years to basically just stay alive and to be there for his sons. I think he felt comfortable enough to know they were going to be OK. And I think he finally just said, 'God, if it's my time, take me and let me go.' "

A trying time

Less than two months after his father passed away, Capps was struck with some tough news professionally. On Dec. 13, the Pirates did not tender Capps a contract because they were unwilling to pay the roughly $3 million he likely would have made through arbitration.

For the first time since turning pro seven years earlier after the Pirates drafted him, Capps found himself without a home. He didn't have his dad to turn to for advice, and while the rest of his family was certainly supportive, it was a difficult and humbling time for the pitcher, who turned 27 on Sept. 3.

"The way it ended is not how I would have wanted it to end," Capps said of his time in Pittsburgh. "But God has his plan for all of us and mine wasn't to be in black and gold anymore. As hard as it was to see at the time, the reason has come in pretty clear here the last couple months. I wouldn't change any of it if I could go back and change the circumstances of me leaving.

"It's changed me as a person and my perspective on the game and what I want to do in the game. It all happened for a reason."

When Matt was coming up through the Minor League system with the Pirates, his father had promised him one thing. Mike -- who despised flying -- told his son that whenever the callup to the Majors came, he would get on a plane and head to whatever city the Pirates were in to see Matt's debut.

Unfortunately, Matt got that call in the middle of the night in September 2005 and wasn't able to make a flight for his family in time. Instead, his parents drove up to Pittsburgh the next season to see him pitch. Last year, when Matt tried to get his dad to fly to another city to see the Pirates play, Mike made him another promise.

"He said, 'I'll tell you what, the next time and last time I'll ever fly will be if you make an All-Star team. No matter where it is, I'll fly,'" Matt said.

Mike passed away before he was able to fulfill that promise, as Matt earned his first All-Star selection this season after signing a free agent deal on Christmas Eve with the Nationals. Capps, who signed on to be the closer, saved 23 games for the Nationals in the first half to represent Washington at the game.

In Capps' view, the location of this year's All-Star Game seemed to be a sign that his dad was watching over him: It took place at Angel Stadium in Anaheim.

"So he flew there," Capps said. "Just not the way we expected."

Another new home

Standing inside the home clubhouse at Target Field last Tuesday night as the Twins celebrated their American League Central title, Capps smiled as he watched his teammates jumping around, spraying champagne on each other before breaking into hugs.

After years of pitching for a team with a losing record, Capps got his first opportunity to compete in a pennant race following his trade to the Twins before the July 31 Trade Deadline.

The Twins were a game out of first place in the AL Central when Capps joined the team, and he played a big role in the club's second-half surge. He provided depth to the bullpen and gave the club a veteran closer to help fill the void left when Joe Nathan was lost for the season with an elbow injury in Spring Training.

"The key to getting players at the deadline is making sure they're chemistry players," said Twins pitching coach Rick Anderson. "That they add to the makeup of the team ... and, shoot, he has more than exceeded what we expected. We had talked about him a few years ago, saying this is a guy with great makeup and stuff. He didn't disappoint us and has made our bullpen even stronger."

It's been quite a ride for Capps professionally over the past year. He experienced what it was like to get non-tendered, earned his first All-Star nod and then celebrated a division title with the hopes of enjoying a few more scenes like that in the postseason.

Capps has felt his father's presence with him on the mound this year, even if it's not something that he consciously thinks about while he's pitching.

"It's like when things start to go bad, there is that calming presence that 'You can do this, all you've got to do is get this guy to hit a ground ball or get this guy to strike out,'" Capps said. "It's almost that sixth sense that's there."

Capps has worked hard to be the best that he can be throughout his career. But now as he prepares for his first playoff experience, his goal is to do whatever it takes to help the Twins achieve their ultimate goal -- a World Series title.

"I think that would mean the world to him," Kathy said. "It's been a stressful year for all of us, but an enjoyable one too with all that Matt has done. I wish his daddy was here to enjoy it with us. But I know that he's watching over him."

Many players acknowledge a loved one in some visible way, but that's not for Capps. He knows he's not alone on the mound because of what is written on the underside of his cap:

"Someone has to be."

Why not him?

Kelly Thesier is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.