Nationals closer Matt Capps begins new season following father's death

By Dave Sheinin
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, February 28, 2010; D01

VIERA, FLA. -- First, the old man would have dispensed some tough love. That's how Mike Capps always was. "You brought this on yourself," he would have told his son. "Don't blame the Pirates."

But after that, he would have shown the way. He would have picked through the many contract offers and helped Matt Capps see the right choice, the place where the young man could set about resuscitating his career in 2010 -- after the Pittsburgh Pirates, the only franchise he had ever known, trash-heaped him in December.

Mike Capps -- Matt's first baseball coach, his life adviser and his father -- would have steered him to the place that made him feel wanted again, where he could take possession of the ninth inning.

He would have steered his son to Washington.

"I think Mike would have said to him, 'Son, this is a good move,' " said Kathy Capps, Matt's mother. "He would have said, 'This is where you belong.' "

If anyone could have known Mike Capps's mind, it was his oldest son, Matt, the Washington Nationals' new closer. Until Mike died of a heart attack on Oct. 22 in their home town of Douglasville, Ga., they spoke every day. Mike was a night owl, and on nights when Matt pitched they would sometimes talk at 1 a.m., with the father breaking down Matt's performance based on what he had seen on television.

"He's the smartest man I've ever come across," Matt Capps said. "He had very little schooling, just two years of community college, but he could break things down and dissect things and bring up points you hadn't thought about. You'd kind of look at him cross-eyed, but lo and behold they'd come true. He saw things that no one else could. And he would tell you what you didn't want to hear, but that you needed to hear."

But now, as Capps, 26, moves through his first spring training camp with the Nationals, who signed him on Christmas Eve to a one-year, $3.5 million contract, he must contemplate the hard reality of his loss, and what it will be like to go to the mound without the comfort of having his father's eyes on him, and without those 1 a.m. phone calls to fall back on.

"I know he'll miss waiting on that phone call," said Matt's younger brother, Chris. "Even though he didn't always need our dad to tell him what he did wrong -- most of the time, he already knew it -- it's still going to be hard for him. But I think it's also going to provide another motivation for him."

Capps, though, got all the motivation he would ever need on Dec. 13, when the Pirates, unwilling to pay him the $3 million or so he would have earned in arbitration for 2010, following a rocky 2009, did not tender him a contract offer, effectively cutting him loose.

It was a humbling experience, being jettisoned by the franchise that had drafted and nurtured you for seven years, but almost immediately, Paul Kinzer, Capps's agent, heard from 16 teams interested in Capps's services. None were more persistent than the Nationals, and it took less than two weeks for Capps to sign with them, picking the Nationals, who promised him the chance to close games, over the Chicago Cubs, who could make no such promise.

At the moment he signed his name to the deal, Capps couldn't help but think of his father, who had been gone just two months at that point, and especially something he had said not long before he passed.

It was late September, the end of another miserable season for the Pirates and a trying one for Capps. After being one of the most effective closers in baseball in 2008, he would rank as one of the worst in 2009, posting a 5.80 ERA and a 1.656 WHIP (walks plus hits per nine innings).

But as his performances grew worse, his late-night discussions with his father grew stronger and more revealing, with Matt increasingly doing the talking. Finally, that night in September, after Capps had converted a shaky save for the Pirates, he broke down his own performance for his father, going deep into mechanical and mental issues that were admittedly over the old man's head.

"He finally told me, 'I think you're at a point where I don't need to tell you anything about baseball. You know more than I know,' " Capps said. "That was very satisfying. That gave me a lot of confidence in myself. I said, 'I'm going to carry that with me.' "

Looking back now, Capps believes his father's validating message that night was a foreshadowing. It was as if the old man knew what would come a month later.

By that point, he had already survived five heart attacks, a triple bypass and a lung operation, so he was clearly working on borrowed time.

And there would be other eerie signals. In early October, the whole Capps family, including Matt and his wife, Jennifer, attended a family reunion in Asheville, N.C. On a Saturday, Mike Capps disappeared for a few hours, and it was only later that everyone found out he had been with his brother, who runs a funeral home in the area, planning his own funeral. Twelve days later, he would be dead.

On Oct. 20, Capps was at his home in Sarasota, Fla., going about the daily monotony of the offseason -- coming home with a car full of groceries, to be specific -- when his father called. When Matt asked if he could call him back in 10 minutes, his father said: "No, don't worry about it. It was nothing."

"Okay, well, I'll call you in the morning," Matt said.

"Okay, I'll talk to you then," Mike said.

Father and son typically ended every call with a quick "love ya," but this time Mike said something that struck his son as strange.

"I remember it as clear as day," Matt recalled. "He said, 'I love you,' and then a slight pause, 'son.' It was just different than normal. I thought about that all afternoon. And it turned out to be the last time I talked to him."

Just before midnight, Chris called to tell Matt their father had fallen in the house and had gone into cardiac arrest. When Matt got hold of their mother, she said, "I don't think he's going to make it through this one."

Matt made it there in time to see his father in the hospital, but Mike was non-responsive, and on Oct. 22 he passed away.

Mike Capps was 61 years old, a man who knew when and how to get his affairs in order. His funeral was already planned, right down to the poetry reading -- Paul Verlaine's "Chanson d'Automne" -- and his son, the closer, was already unbound, set free of the father's guiding hand to find his own way now.

© 2010 The Washington Post Company