Falls Road native PJ Conlon makes a pitch for the Majors
WEST Belfast has produced an Olympic gold medal-winning ice hockey star in Owen Nolan and it may not be long before it can lay claim to a Major League baseball pitcher too.
PJ Conlon, a ‘finesse lefty’, who was brought up on Rockville Street off the Falls Road, was signed by the New York Mets in the baseball draft last week.
Left arm pitcher Conlon was just shy of his second birthday when he moved to Orange County, California in 1996 and he began playing baseball three years later.
From kids’ T-ball he moved steadily through the ranks and was the University of San Diego’s star pitcher last year.
Now he’s a ‘pro-baller’ and on the ladder that leads all the way to the ‘majors’ and the trappings that go with them.
The 21-year-old, who will start out at the Mets’ feeder club The Brooklyn Cyclones this season, sat through two nail-biting days of the draft before his name came up. He admits that getting signed was “a dream come true”.
“I thought I was going to get taken on the second day and I didn’t,” he explained.
“I was sitting there waiting all day waiting to hear my name but it didn’t end up happening. I went in to the third day pretty confident that I was going to get taken but I wasn’t exactly sure where.
“I sat down to watch all day and wait for my name to come up. Once I saw my name get taken I was kind of relieved because the draft was a pretty stressful time because you’re sitting there waiting and if your name doesn’t come up for a while you start to get a bit discouraged.
“I was extremely relieved and it started to sink in after that that I had an opportunity to be a professional baseball player and I’ve been wanting to do that ever since I started playing baseball when I was five.
“It’s really a dream come true. I’m excited and I’m just ready to give it all I got and see what happens next.”
Starting out in the Class-A ranks, Conlon has work to do before he lines out for the New York Mets first team. He might have to go through Class AA, Double A and Triple A before getting a sniff at the elite ranks but says the Mets gave him the best opportunity to do that and make a career playing the game he loves.
“I really wanted to go to the Mets because they are going to give me the best opportunity to move up and play a lot,” he explained.
“I was really happy that they took me because they sent me straight to Brooklyn to play and that was a big factor. The goal is to make a career out of this, to be able to move my way up, get to the Majors.
“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.”
PJ’s dad Patrick is originally from Lenadoon, Belfast and emigrated to California with his parents as a teenager in 1980.
He returned to his native sod in 1991, PJ was born in November 1993 and brought up in Rockville Street off the Falls Road. In 1996, Patrick and his wife decided to return to California and settled in Orange County where he has worked a PE teacher for the past 17 years. His mother is a sister of the late Eddie Shaw, the famed boxing guru who coached Barry McGuigan among others.
“My granny and grandad are in California too and they still have their accents and my dad has his accent,” PJ explained.
“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 has been described as a “classical finesse lefty” who knows exactly what he is doing when he is on the hill.
His fast ball hits 88-90mph but he uses as much brain as brawn with a lot of variations to keep the batters “off balance”.
“I have a curve ball, a slider and a change-up as well,” he explained.
“My whole game is to keep the hitter off balance and to mix my pitches so he doesn’t know what’s coming.
“That’s how I get people out. I don’t throw the hardest out there so I keep them off balance, keep them guessing and it works out.”
In his three years at the University of San Diego, he proved to be a very consistent pitcher, piling up impressive statistics particularly in his first and third seasons.
But he knows lining out for the Cyclones is a much tougher challenge – every side he faces will be teeming with talented players all anxious to make a name for themselves.
“At college there is great competition,” he explained.
“Every team you play in has a couple of great players who you really have to watch out for.
“But when you get up here it’s like pro-ball so the few guys that you worry about in the line-up at college, now the whole line-up in pro-ball is filled with those guys.
“So it’s not like you have to turn your focus up for certain players, up here you have to be focussed 100 per cent on every single guy because they are all tremendous players.”
Irish baseball stars
FROM Jimmy Archer to Jimmy Walsh, 47 Irishmen have played Major League baseball in the States.
The last one to do so was Cork-born Joseph ‘The Fire’ Cleary who played a single game for the Washington Senators in 1945.
The only Belfast native who has played baseball is ‘Irish’ Harry McIlveen who turned out for New York’s Highlanders, later to become the New York Yankees, between 1906 and 1909.