FORT MYERS, FLA. - Twins closer Matt Capps still remembers the feeling in the pit of his stomach last Sept. 29, when he hopped into his black Ford F-250 and put the Minneapolis and St. Paul skylines in the truck's rear-view mirror.
He was headed home to Atlanta, where his wife, Jennifer, was expecting their first child.
The Twin Cities had been so good to them just one year earlier, after his trade from the Washington Nationals. To that point, Capps had grown used to pitching in empty stadiums, but he thrived off the energy from the sellout crowds at Target Field and relished his first playoff experience.
But 2011 had been the most trying season of his career, stirring a sadness he hadn't felt since his father died in 2009. At one point last year, Twins fans booed Capps off the field after four consecutive appearances.
"I've never felt that empty about a season ending," he said. "I didn't think the opportunity to come back would be there, and Twins fans were going to think that what they saw last year was me. That's not how I wanted to be remembered."
Six weeks later, General Manager Terry Ryan called Capps and said the Twins wanted him back. The fact Capps was even interested in returning impressed manager Ron Gardenhire.
"That told me a little something about his courage," Gardenhire said.
Capps called his agent, Paul Kinzer, and said he'd like to make something work with the Twins. After Joe Nathan signed his two-year, $14.75 million deal with the Rangers, Capps and the Twins agreed to a one-year, $4.75 million deal with an option for 2013.
"I was raised never to run away from anything," said Capps, who had nine blown saves, seven losses and a 4.25 ERA last year. "Real true men don't do that. They confront their problems. When this opportunity came up, it was a no-brainer."
Growing up in Douglasville, Ga., about 20 miles west of Atlanta, Capps was a big Braves fan. He idolized all their players, especially Dale Murphy, and eventually Mike and Kathy Capps decided their son was just a little too starstruck.
"My dad would kind of laugh at me and say, 'Matt, it has to be somebody out on that field. Why not you?' " Capps said.
The son keeps a reminder of those conversations on his Twins hat. Underneath the bill, alongside other words of inspiration, Capps has written, "Someone has to be."
"Matt and Mike were very, very close," Kathy said. "They used to talk on the phone every day, sometimes two or three times. Mike was a night owl, so after a ballgame, Matt would call, or Mike would call him to try to work him through things."
The Capps family knew how precious their time together was because Mike had a history of health problems. He had one kidney removed in 1979 and suffered the first of five heart attacks when Matt was in fifth grade.
Mike was Matt's first baseball coach, so he knew pitching, and he always had the right words of encouragement. Matt emerged as one of the National League's best relievers for the Pirates between 2006 and 2008, but he leaned on his dad a lot in 2009, when he posted a 5.80 ERA.
Father and son always ended the calls with the same words: "Love ya." On Oct. 20, 2009, Mike finished their call a bit more emphatically, saying, "I love you ... son."
Those were the last words Matt heard him say.
"I guess he had a premonition," Kathy said.
Late that night, Matt got another call from his brother, saying Mike had fallen and suffered another heart attack. He passed away two days later, at age 61. The brothers had made it home in time to see him, but he was unresponsive.
"We had watched him suffer for so many years, with so many different ailments," Kathy said. "My salvation is he's not suffering anymore. He's not in pain. We miss him, but he's in a better place."
Among the many things Capps learned from his father was accountability. He's not an excuse maker, and he doesn't blame the fans who booed him last season.
"They pay me a lot of money to do a job, and I didn't do the job," he said. "Ticket holders and people that buy merchandise and tickets -- they have that right."
His popularity with Twins fans undoubtedly suffers because the Twins gave up such a good player to get him. On July 29, 2010, when Joe Nathan was still recovering from elbow surgery, they acquired Capps from the Nationals for catcher Wilson Ramos, who batted .267 with 15 home runs last year, while the Twins were desperate for catching help behind oft-injured Joe Mauer.
After posting a 2.00 ERA and converting 16 of 18 save chances down the stretch for Twins in 2010, Capps had a great spring training last year, making 10 appearances without allowing an earned run.
In retrospect, the Twins would have been better served keeping Capps in the closer's role, allowing Nathan more time to ease his way back from the surgery. But Nathan is a four-time All-Star, and even though his pitches weren't nearly as crisp as they'd been in 2009, the Twins gave him his old job back, making Capps a set-up man.
Capps said he expected that decision, but nothing was made official until the final week of camp. He was ill-prepared for a night like April 14 in Tampa, when he warmed up in the seventh and eighth innings before heating up again to pitch the 10th.
With Nathan struggling, the Twins returned Capps to the closer role in mid-April. About one month later, set-up man Glen Perkins pulled an oblique muscle and landed on the disabled list. The Twins needed more from Capps, but the early workload caught up to him. He spent much of the summer dealing with a sore wrist and a sore forearm. Between May 11 and July 15, he blew six of 12 save chances before the Twins made Nathan the closer again.
"Honestly, I know what happened," Gardenhire said. "If you were there and watched him pitch with injuries, and take the ball every day and never back away -- I watched it all last year. The guy wasn't healthy. We beat him up early, and the guy never recovered from it."
Capps, who quietly posted a 3.24 ERA in his final 30 appearances, refuses to blame injuries for his midseason struggles.
"I wasn't hurt the entire year," he said. "I had some really good games when my arm just killed me, and I had some really bad games when my arm felt great."
Tough to hear
Capps said his wife wasn't in the ballpark to hear much of the booing last year.
"She's a little different than me," he said, with a laugh. "It would have been a fight. She came with some friends to one of the first bad games I had and didn't really like what she saw or heard.
"She's one of the select few who understand that we all are human. She automatically assumes that everybody should know that we're not just baseball players -- we're people, we're dads, we're brothers, we're sons."
Asked how she felt when her husband re-signed with the Twins, Jennifer Capps replied via text message: "I had some mixed emotions about the way things went last year, but when I saw how Matt felt about the chance to come back, I was excited for him!"
Capps, 28, signed his new contract Dec. 6. Two months later, Jennifer gave birth to their son, Maxwell. One year earlier, Capps' brother and his wife welcomed a baby girl.
"My dad would have eaten all this up," Capps said. "He would have loved it. I'm a man of faith, and I hate that he missed it in this life, but I believe he knew his grandkids before we did."
Capps misses those daily conversations with his father, but he's sure Mike would have supported his decision to re-sign with the Twins. If he can return to his All-Star form of 2010, Capps could become a key cog for a team trying to bounce back from a 99-loss season.
Someone has to be.