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Father's memory lingers for Nationals closer Matt Capps

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By Adam Kilgore
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, July 11, 2010

Matt Capps sometimes talks with his father, but mostly he just listens. The lessons Mike Capps imparted to his son before he passed away last October are still there. During his toughest days, Capps can hear his dad telling him, "Nobody said it was going to be easy." During his best days, Capps hears, "Somebody has to be the best."

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At once, Capps believes his father is with him and also knows he is not. Capps spoke over the telephone with his father every day, usually more than once.

His father's absence hits him hardest at his most joyful moments. Last Sunday, when Capps made the National League all-star team, he did not think first about the hardships he overcame in his career or what the achievement meant. He thought about how badly he wanted to call his father.

On Tuesday, Capps will represent the Washington Nationals in the All-Star Game, in Anaheim, Calif. Players across the National League anointed him one of the best closers in the game months after the Pittsburgh Pirates did not tender him a contract, months after he sat in a quiet cabin in North Carolina with his wife Jen and decided, late Christmas night, he would play for the Nationals.

In his first season pitching following the death of his father, Capps does not pay tribute to him in any outward way and doesn't keep any physical mementos remembering him. He says a prayer behind the mound as part of his routine before each time he throws his first pitch. He knows that's all his father would want.

"It's part of life," Capps said. "I'm moving forward and doing what I want to do. That would make him proud to know. By going out and playing and working hard off the field, preparing every day, that's the best way of remembering and representing the name that I carry."

Capps leans on his family, his teammates and his agent, Paul Kinzer, to replicate the support his father once gave. He speaks most often with one of his uncles, Marty Christianson. "There's a hole, though." Christianson said. "I don't think it's the same."

Mike Capps ran a restaurant -- the Wiener Stand, in Murphy, N.C. -- and worked in a hospital before Matt was born. He appraised real estate from the time Matt can remember, fighting mortgage companies through his constant illnesses. He was 61 and had "the body of a 90-year-old," said Kathy Capps, Matt's mother. He married at 19 and had the first of more than two dozen kidney surgeries shortly after. He had five heart attacks and a lung surgery. His final heart attack came Oct. 22.

"He suffered for many, many years," Kathy Capps said. "He's in no more pain. I have to look at it that way."

Mike Capps, at first, did not want his boy to play Little League baseball. Capps idolized Dale Murphy and played in the sandlots in Douglasville, Ga. with friends from his neighborhood, and that was fine. Organized baseball meant too much politics. One of the fathers persuaded Mike to let his son play -- he would coach him and take him to and from games.

Mike consented and joined as an assistant coach. By the next season, Mike was a head coach and the vice president of the Little League. He was all or nothing.

"That was one of his things," Capps said. "When we did sign up, he said, 'You can play, but the day you don't try to be the best one out there is the day you quit.' I said okay."


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