Northern Ireland news

West Belfast-born pitcher becomes first Irishman to play Major League Baseball for 70 years

West Belfast man PJ Conlon was due to make his Major League Baseball debut with the New York Mets

WEST Belfast is known for churning out scrappy boxers but as of this week it can also lay claim to having produced a Major League Baseball star.

PJ Conlon, born in Rockville Street off the Falls Road, was first signed by the New York Mets in 2015.

The following year he was named Mets Minor League Pitcher of the Year after a winning season with feeder teams the Columbia Fireflies and St Lucie Mets.

And the 24-year-old made his Major League debut overnight, making him the first Irish-born player to play at the sport's top level since 1945.

Conlon told MLB.com: "It's just something you dream about. It was cool. It was just so fun. It was a heck of an experience."

A left-arm pitcher, Conlon was just shy of his second birthday when his family moved from Belfast to Orange County, California in 1996, and he began playing baseball three years later.

From kids’ 'T-ball' he moved steadily through the grades and was the University of San Diego’s star pitcher. His fast ball has been recorded at 90mph.

Speaking to The Irish News shortly after he was signed by the Mets, he said playing baseball at that level was a "dream come true"

"I’m just ready to give it all I got and see what happens next," he said.

"I want this be my career so I don’t have to find a job and wear a suit every day. I can show up to a baseball field, put on my uniform and play a game. That’s really the goal and the dream – to make a long and healthy career out of the game."

On his Irish heritage, he said: "Family come and visit all the time from Ireland and I actually went back to Ireland when I was 16 so I got to see all of it first hand and see the house I lived in.

"I've always had the Irish roots, we're a pretty strong Irish family."

PJ’s father Patrick, a PE teacher, is originally from Lenadoon in west Belfast.

He emigrated to California with his parents as a teenager in 1980 but returned to Belfast in 1991.

His mother is a sister of the late Eddie Shaw, the famed boxing guru who coached Barry McGuigan among others.

PJ Conlon is a big fan of west Belfast boxer and namesake Michael Conlon.

He was due to make his debut as a starting pitcher on the baseball diamond when the Mets faced the Cincinnati Reds last night.

The last Irishman to play Major League Baseball was Cork-born Joseph ‘The Fire’ Cleary, who played a single game for the Washington Senators in 1945.

The only other Belfast native is ‘Irish’ Harry McIlveen who turned out for New York’s Highlanders, later to become the New York Yankees, between 1906 and 1909.

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