Paul Kostacopoulos faces countless decisions, great and small, every day as Navy's head baseball coach. But for the past four years, Travis Blue has helped take some of the stress out of the job.
Kostacopoulos has penciled in Blue at shortstop on every single lineup card. By now, the veteran coach has stopped considering sending anybody else. Even for, say, a couple innings late in a blowout.
"He gets grumpy when he gets taken out," Kostacopoulos said. "So we just keep him in there now."
By his coach's estimation, Blue has missed only a handful of innings during his college career. Navy's Iron Man reached the program record for career starts when he opened the game at Maryland Eastern Shore April 12. He started all 220 games possible heading into his final Patriot League Tournament.
Blue has saved his best for last. His batting average is up almost 100 points over his career average entering this season to .356, and he's set career-highs in almost every offensive category, while helping the Midshipmen to a repeat conference regular-season title.
"It's definitely something that I like to pride myself on -- being ready to go every day," Blue said. "Just being here for whatever the team needs. Any of those type of cheesy things. When it comes down to it, I just want to play."
Blue credits his Southern California roots for his impressive durability. Growing up, the weather was good enough to play almost every day. So he did.
For a while, Blue thought he'd stick around close to home for college. He looked hard at Pepperdine University and San Diego State before Kostacopoulos made his pitch.
The Navy coach didn't necessarily see a four-year starter back then. Blue barely weighed 150 pounds as a high school senior. He was more certain, however, the recruit had the attitude and work ethic needed to balance the demands of the sport and military academy life.
"He's just very driven to play this game," Kostacopoulos said. "Maybe as much, if not more, than anybody I've coached."
Blue benefited from some good fortune to begin his record chase. His predecessor, a sophomore who started all 51 games at short in 2013, left the team after the season.
Blue arrived with a blue-collar game based around speed, a slick glove and smart situational hitting that fit well with Navy's preferred style. He dove right in, the best he could as a freshman, hitting .284 on the way to All-Patriot League honors. It wasn't just the statistics that made an early impression, but also the way he carried himself on and off the diamond.
"I love watching him, because no matter what, he's going to go out there and give you everything he's got," said catcher Adrian Chinnery, who came in with Blue. "Nothing changes for him. He's the same guy every day."
Blue has been a lineup fixture since then, a feat made more impressive by the grueling Patriot League schedule. Conference series are traditionally played with doubleheaders on Saturday and Sunday.
Blue said there's no real secret to his preparation -- unless you count his usual pregame visit to Naval Bagels. He's been fortunate to avoid injury and extended slumps.
"Probably towards the end of the year, it starts getting to be a little bit more of a grind," Blue said. "Your body starts to tighten up. Things start hurting, but it's not just me individually. Everybody deals with it."
Photo Credit: Phil Hoffmann/Navy Athletics
Blue has pushed through it all, to the point where he's only missed one official practice throughout four years. That was in January, two days after having his wisdom teeth removed. He watched the season's first workout on doctor's orders, but he was back the next day, fueled by his passion to play and some strong pain medication.
"Just because we didn't have a lot of guys to scrimmage with," Blue said with a grin. "So I had to be out there."
Last season Blue had a down year offensively by his lofty standards, but he still started every day and helped Navy to its first NCAA Tournament win since 2002.
His spike in production this spring can be explained, in part, by an offseason spent in the weight room and a few more ice baths this spring to keep his body fresh.
His even-keeled approach hasn't changed much during the years, though. He's provided a spark for a high-scoring offense out of the No. 2 hole and a shining example for a lineup packed with newcomers to follow.
"I'm kind of just taking it one day at time, trying to stay in the moment," Blue said before a sun-splashed practice at Max Bishop Stadium late last month. "When it ends, it ends, but you can't do anything about the end date. When the day comes to hang ‘em up and put it all back in the closet, you just hope that you've given pretty much everything."
Blue hoped to finish with another NCAA trip before heading to Navy flight school in the fall. The top-seeded Midshipmen were set to host No. 4 Bucknell in the Patriot League semifinals May 13 and 14. The winner moved on to face either Holy Cross or Army for a spot in the national tournament.
Regardless of the ending, Blue's place in program history is secure.
A scan of Navy's online record book shows he's among the top 20 in 23 statistical categories. He's scored more runs, drawn more walks and recorded more assists in the field than any other Midshipman. He's likely to finish in the top three on the all-time hits list.
Kostacopoulos marvels that he's never had a reason to give Blue an afternoon off. Everybody he's coached in 12 years at Navy has needed a break now and then, understandable given the time-consuming responsibilities Midshipmen face off the field. Everybody except Blue.
"I'm not sure it can be done again," Kostacopoulos said. "That's how strongly I feel about that."
Issue 233: May 2017