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Capps strives to compete with class and dignity
Monday, Jul 26, 2010
By Joshua Cooley

WASHINGTON (BP)--Mike Capps would have been so proud.

This is what he and his son, Matt, used to talk about all those years ago at old Atlanta-Fulton County Stadium as they watched their hometown Braves. Matt would gawk at blasts by Dale Murphy and, later, Chipper Jones. He’d marvel at the way Greg Maddux painted the corners with the precision of a world-class artist, or the way John Smoltz conjured up fireballs from his fingertips.

Mike, never one to miss a teaching moment in baseball, would take full advantage of his young son’s wide-eyed wonder.

“He used to tell me when I was a kid: ‘Someone has to be the best. Why not you?’” Matt recalled.

Matt Capps is now one of the best. The Washington Nationals’ closer is among the major league leaders in saves, and on July 13 in Anaheim, Calif., he earned the win for the National League in his first All-Star Game.

Father and son certainly would have embraced over the culmination of years of hard work, prayer and many late-night conversations. Only Mike Capps isn’t here anymore. His frail body shut down for good after a tragic fall last October. These days, Matt only hears his father’s comforting advice through his memory.

“You know, the lessons he taught me as a kid I hear every day,” said Capps, 26, a native of Douglasville, Ga. “I remember him well. There are some sad moments and sad times. I want him back for selfish reasons. But I know he’s in a better place, and I’ll see him sooner rather than later.”

The past 12 months have been a wild ride for Capps, who spent his first eight seasons in the Pittsburgh Pirates’ organization. At this time last year, with a 6.21 ERA entering the 2009 All-Star break, it looked like his once-promising career was rapidly unraveling. He finished the season with a career-high 27 saves, but his final 5.80 ERA, 1.66 WHIP (walks plus hits per nine innings), .324 opposing batting average and five blown saves were enough to convince Pittsburgh to let him go last December before the arbitration deadline.

It was an unsettling time for Capps – being out of a job and without his father. Two months earlier, on Oct. 20, Mike Capps had fallen off a ladder in his carport, badly injuring his head on the concrete floor. His wife, Kathy, found him a few minutes later, and by the time the paramedics arrived, Mike went into cardiac arrest. It was the final blow to a weary body which had endured five heart attacks, lung surgery and more than two dozen kidney operations.

Two days later, the Capps family made the difficult decision to take Mike off life support. He was 61.

“It’s been up and down,” Matt Capps said of life without his dad. “I think about him every day.”

On Jan. 6, after three and a half weeks of uncertainly about his career, Capps signed a one-year, $3.5 million deal with the Nationals, who were desperately looking to improve their own bullpen after a disastrous 59-103 campaign in 2009. The result has been a much-needed career renaissance. The 6-foot-2, 245-pound right-handed flamethrower currently has 24 saves in 28 chances and a 2.86 ERA.

In the All-Star Game, he relieved Phillies ace Roy Halladay with two outs in the sixth inning to face his only hitter, Boston slugger David Ortiz, who had won the home run derby a night earlier. Capps struck out Ortiz looking and earned the win after the National League, trailing 1-0 when he entered the game, scored three runs in the top of the seventh for an eventual 3-1 victory, the Senior Circuit’s first All-Star triumph since 1996.

“It has been a whirlwind 12 months,” said Capps, who pays tribute to his dad with the inscription “Someone has to be” on the underside of his game hat. “I started the year last year pretty good and then kind of ran into some hard times on the field. I never stopped competing. I never stopped going out and attacking the strike zone and doing what I felt like I did best.”

Capps’ Christian faith has been an anchor throughout his trials. After praying the sinner’s prayer at church when he was 10, his desire to live out his faith waned in adolescence. By 2004, at age 20 and two years after the Pirates drafted him in the seventh round, his life was a mess. He experienced the first prolonged baseball failure in his life – a ghastly 10.07 ERA at Class A Hickory (N.C.) – and struggled with excessive drinking and improper dating relationships. He felt condemned for his actions, not understanding how God could forgive him.

“During those periods, I ran away from learning more about God and Jesus,” Capps recalled. “I shot away from opportunities. The chapel leader would walk in the room, and I’d walk right out. I felt like people could see right through me.”

The following season, he met David Daly, Hickory’s chapel leader at the time. Daly discipled Capps and challenged him to align his private life and public testimony with the faith he professed. Soon, Capps became the team’s chapel leader.

“My priorities changed,” he said. “I became more educated [spiritually]. I started asking smarter and deeper questions. That’s really when I turned it over. That was the first time, really, when I was by myself and seeking [that I] asked Jesus to completely take over my heart.”

As Capps matured in his faith, his career took off. Following his dismal 2004 season, the Pirates’ organization converted him into a closer in 2005. In five months, he shot from Class A to Pittsburgh, making his major league debut 13 days after his 22nd birthday. With a mid-90s fastball and a cruel slider, he earned Pittsburgh’s closer role in 2007 and saved a combined 39 games in 2007-08.

This season, Capps has returned to his prior dominance. He sported a sub-2.00 ERA through his first 19 appearances and converted his first 16 save opportunities. Starting May 23, he endured a rough two weeks in which he blew four of seven saves and his ERA swelled to 3.62. Since then, he has been a perfect five-for-five in save opportunities. In fact, the successful end-of-game combination of Tyler Clippard and Drew Storen, both Nationals setup men, and Capps has spawned a catchy nickname in D.C.: “Clip, Store and Save.”

“He’s just a competitor,” Nationals pitching coach Steve McCatty said.

Capps, who got married in November 2008, now actively looks for ways to share his faith. When Daly was hired as the Fellowship of Christian Athletes’ national baseball director in January 2009, he quickly appointed Capps to his board of directors. Last offseason, Capps shared his testimony with about 400 coaches at an FCA breakfast in Dallas during the annual American Baseball Coaches Association convention. He also visits hospitals and gives clinics to inner-city kids.

“He has such a generous heart,” Daly said.

One of Capps’ greatest statements of faith is one of his simplest gestures. Each time he enters a game, before his first pitch, he removes his hat, bows his head and says a short prayer. It’s a powerful, non-verbal witness that has elicited thanks from parents and youth group leaders watching from the stands or on television.

“He was doing that in low-A ball,” Daly said. “He doesn’t pray to win or lose. He prays to glorify God, and God blesses that.”

“I’d like to be a very successful pitcher,” Capps said, “but most importantly, I’d like for players and fans and people in general to look at my career and say, ‘He did it with class and dignity. He exemplified what we want our kids to do.’ With the stage we’re given with baseball, we’re role models whether we want to be or not. If I’m able to do that, I’ll consider my career a success.”

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