May 2009 The Year of the Capper Mad Capper Matt Capps Jill Ewert Pittsburgh Pirates
Southsiders of Chicago will never forget the summer of 2005. It was a season that brought glory to the Windy City as their beloved White Sox crushed the Houston Astros in a World Series sweep.
Fans cheered, brooms were raised, and confetti rained down on LaSalle Street in grand celebration.
Matt Capps — #55
|Born: Sept. 3, 1983|
Birthplace: Douglasville, Ga.
Weight: 245 lbs.
MLB Debut: Sept. 16, 2005
CAPPS' ADVICE TO YOUNG ATHLETES:
"Be yourself. God made us who we are, and He wants us to be ourselves. He wants other people to see us and what He made and the beauty that's in each and every one of us as individuals. I'm not going to be like anybody else, and they're not going to be like me. But just be yourself and let that person come through. And when people talk to you, let them know who you are and what you're about. Let them see Christ through you."
Four hundred miles away in Pittsburgh, the silence was deafening. The everyday echo of the steel mills was the only sound resonating from PNC Park, home of the cellar-dwelling Pittsburgh Pirates. There were no parades, no double-decker buses. Only the murmur of embittered fans muttering the familiar lie, "Maybe next year."
Had Pirates fans only known that, in a small way, 2005 was a banner year for their ballclub, they might have broken out a little ticker tape of their own. It was, after all, the season that gave way to the brilliant rise of a little-known right-handed pitcher from Douglasville, Ga. The man who would pull off the unthinkable by climbing the entire baseball ladder — from low Class A ball to the majors — in just one season and eventually become one of the game's brightest young closers.
Ask Matt Capps, however, if he would have dreamed he'd be running out of a big-league bullpen at the end of that 2005 season, and you will receive a hearty laugh. Especially considering the way things finished for him in 2004. (Hint: He had a 10.00 ERA at the All-Star break that season.)
At the end of 2004, Capps had seriously contemplated retiring from the game altogether. But that winter was a turning point for him in more ways than one. Not only did he resuscitate his game, he also revived the faith he'd claimed as a child.
Rewind for a moment to Capps' youth. As a 9-year-old baseball VIP, he had earned a spot on an all-star team that was coached by a Christian. After watching the coach's example and asking a number of questions, Capps placed his own faith in Christ and was baptized later that year.
Over the course of time, however, Capps put Christ in the backseat and decided to drive through life on his own terms. That offseason, though, when life became too much for him to handle on his own, Capps got back on his knees and returned to the waiting arms of his Savior.
"It's amazing to really feel Christ and the warmth that He brings, which is something I hadn't experienced much until I put all my faith back into Him," said Capps, now beginning his fourth full season in the majors. "Now I know that, whatever happens, there's a reason for it, and there's tremendous comfort in that."
SEASON OF CHANGE
God certainly works in mysterious ways. It's no coincidence that Capps' faith solidified before the start of the '05 season began.
He began that year in low Class A with North Carolina's Hickory Crawdads. The chaplain for that team was a man by the name of David Daly, who was, at the time, an FCA area representative.
The two struck up a ministry partnership within the team — Daly as the Baseball Chapel rep and Capps as his chapel leader — and began a quest to impact their team for Christ.
"Everybody in that clubhouse knew exactly where Matt stood with God because they could see it every day," said Daly, who is now the national director of FCA's Baseball Ministry. "He was willing to talk about Christ to anybody at any time. And that's the kind of person you want as your chapel leader: someone who sets an example."
On the field, Capps was relieved to start the season in better shape than he'd left off. He pitched well and was a solid reliever for the Crawdads until early May.
Call it destiny. Call it fate. Either way, it was a move of God — one that ushered Capps into his sweet spot.
"We had a guy who was the closer, and who probably should have been the closer, but he was having some hard times," said Capps, now referred to as "the Mad Capper" by Pirates fans and media. "One day in the ninth inning, they just gave me the ball. I came in with a couple of guys on and no outs, but I managed to get out of it and get the save."
That game put Capps in the permanent closing role. He finished the Class A short season with Hickory and pitched well enough to be moved to Double A at the beginning of August. The transition put him back in the middle reliever role, but not for long. Little more than a week went by before the closer for the Altoona (Penn.) Curve hurt his elbow and management asked Capps to step in.
Capps continued to impress for the Curve until the Double A season ended on Sept. 12. That night, as the team rode the bus home from their final game, the players being sent up to Triple A were notified and given their travel assignments. Capps was not one of them.
When the bus arrived in Altoona at 3:30 that morning, however, team manager Tony Beasley approached Capps. He informed the young pitcher that one of the players had, for family reasons, declined the opportunity to advance to Triple A.
"I knew God was with me the whole way. It was bumpy for me at times, and I definitely had a lot of maturing to do, but I've felt His presence at every moment."
"He said to me, 'If they call you in the morning and ask you, will you go?'" Capps recalled. It was a no-brainer.
When the phone rang later that morning at 10:30, Capps received word that he was being sent on to join the Triple-A Indianapolis Indians, who were in the middle of their championship series.
Capps traveled to Indy, and was with the Indians long enough to pitch impressively despite the team's failure to win a single game. They were swept in three games by the Toledo Mud Hens and sent home for the season.
"At that point I was pretty satisfied with the season," Capps said. "I'd started in low A ball and had made it to Triple A. It wasn't a bad year at all."
But the Capper's year was far from over.
After the Indians' final defeat, Capps headed back with his teammates to the cafeteria for a late, post-game dinner. Manager Trent Jewett made the rounds, shaking hands and congratulating players on their season performances. Jewett was about to leave the room when he called to Capps and motioned for him to come over for a private conversation.
"I'll never forget this," Capps recalled. "His back was up against a concrete wall, and he stuck out his hand and said, 'Congratulations, you're going to the big leagues.'"
Jewett turned and walked away, but Capps remained motionless. He stared at the blank white concrete and asked himself if he had heard his manager correctly. When the team's director of player development walked over to offer his congratulations, it finally became real.
"I never even went back to my food in the cafeteria," Capps said with a laugh. "I ran back to the clubhouse and grabbed my cell phone to call my family."
The fact that it was the middle of the night, and even later for his parents back in Georgia, gave Capps pause before he dialed their house number. Instead, he decided to call his little brother, Christopher, who was a senior in high school, and ask him to break the news to his sleeping parents.
It gave Capps' mother a good scare to see her high school son standing over her in the middle of the night holding a cell phone to his ear, frantically asking her to wake up his father. But when the news was revealed, all fear was replaced with delight and shouts of joy.
Matt Capps was on his way to The Show.
RIGHT ON SCHEDULE
The timing of Capps' MLB debut was surreal.
• 6:45 p.m. – Capps lands in Pittsburgh.
• 7:05 p.m. – Pirates-Reds game begins.
• Bottom of the second inning – Capps arrives at PNC Park.
• Second through fourth innings – Capps hunts down available gear in light of no uniform awaiting his arrival and then dresses for the game.
• Fifth inning – Capps enters the dugout.
• Sixth inning – Capps heads out to Pirates bullpen.
• Seventh inning – Capps leaves the bullpen and jogs to the pitcher's mound for a solid two-strikeout inning.
The rest, as they say, is baseball history.
Capps made the big-league squad again in 2006 and spent that season and the next establishing his spot among the Major League leaders in holds. When the closing position became available midway through the 2007 season, Capps was a natural fit to take over.
In 2008, Capps started the season with 15 consecutive saves before going on the disabled list with arm soreness. This season, however, a healthy, slimmer (and newly married) Capps is bringing the heat to Pirates opponents once again.
From where he started to where he is now, Capps can look back and see the fingerprints of God dotting his entire career.
"I knew God was with me the whole way," he said. "It was bumpy for me at times, and I definitely had a lot of maturing to do, but I've felt His presence at every moment."
BIGGER THAN BASEBALL
To this day, Capps draws on a lesson he learned from Daly back in Hickory.
"He talked about how we're on a stage and how so many people see us on a daily basis," he said. "It's a great platform to be on, and it's a great opportunity to share our message."
Capps sends that message in subtle, yet noticeable, ways. Before every inning he pitches, he takes a public stance of faith by walking to the back of the mound, removing his cap and bowing his head in prayer. He asks the Lord to help him express Him in everything he does. He asks that people see his prayer and ask questions.
"If just one kid looks at his dad or mom and says, 'What's going on out there?' and they can explain it to him, then I've served my role in being out there," he said. "Being professional athletes, we are given certain gifts and talents, and there's a reason why. If God has blessed me with the ability to throw a baseball and I can share my faith and love for Him just by being out there and saying a prayer, then it's as simple as that."
FCA BASEBALL NEW TESTAMENT:
|Look for the new FCA Baseball New Testament, which will feature Capps and other major leaguers such as Albert Pujols, Brian Roberts and Matt Holliday, available in August 2009.|
In another move of active service to the Lord, Capps recently locked arms with Daly and assumed a position on FCA Baseball's National Leadership Board. He also has lent his testimony to the upcoming FCA Baseball New Testament, which will be used to communicate the gospel to legions of spiritually hungry baseball fans around the world.
"It's an honor just to be a part of something that is this great and can be this big," Capps said. "Baseball is our national pastime, and a lot of people look up to us because of what we do. To be able to use that and funnel that into sharing Christ is an unbelievable opportunity."
To have someone like Capps on board with the ministry is something of great value to Daly, as well, as he seeks to expand the ministry.
"Matt's always been the kind of guy who just says, 'If you need anything, give me a call,'" Daly said. "He hasn't changed a bit since he was in Hickory. He's still the same guy who loves the Lord and wants to serve Him. He's one of those rare breeds who, even in his prominent role in the ballclub, still has a servant's heart. And that's going to make a huge difference in a lot of lives."
--For more stories about faith and sport, visit www.sharingthevictory.com, the official magazine of the Fellowship of Christian Athletes. To subscribe to STV, click here.
Photos courtesy of the Pittsburgh Pirates.