Belfast Telegraph

PJ from the Falls in strong pitch to fly the flag for Belfast in Major League US baseball

 

By Jonathan Bradley

Like cheese on top of apple pie, baseball has always been one of those American favourites that seems to make little sense to us on this side of the pond.

While, with Channel 5's much-loved coverage having given way to BT Sport in the past decade, there is a growing number of those turning into work bleary-eyed after spending the twilight hours hanging on every pitch, by and large the USA's national pastime remains a niche market in this part of the world.

That could soon change though, with the Belfast-born PJ Conlon making waves in the famed New York Mets organisation.

The 23-year-old hasn't quite made it all the way to the Big Apple just yet, but has been impressing in the team's various minor league sides for over a year now, and could soon be completing the most unusual of journeys - from the Falls Road to the Major Leagues.

Back in 1993, he was born in the Royal Victoria Hospital, the first-born child of Patrick and Susan Conlon of Rockville Street in west Belfast.

The couple had met Stateside having emigrated separately with their families as teens, Patrick from Belfast and Susan from Scotland.

Having met and married after college, they returned back to Northern Ireland only to arrive into the middle of The Troubles.

And so when PJ was just two-years-old, they opted to leave the conflict behind and return to Anaheim in California.

"I think they just thought it would be better for us as a family," says Conlon of a time in his life he can barely recall.

"As well as that, my dad's parents were still out there."

Growing up, his place of birth was always firmly ingrained though, with his extended family making every effort to preserve their Irish heritage.

"I was always aware of it, we were always a big Irish family," he recalls.

"I remember whenever there was a big Celtic game or something like that we'd all gather together to watch."

And that connection only intensified after a visit back to Belfast with his grandparents while he was still a student in high school.

Shown the sights by a gaggle of cousins still living in the city, Conlon took special interest in returning to the family's former Rockville Street address, as well as the many relics and murals of a conflict that had helped guide his parents back across the Atlantic Ocean.

"It really was an awesome experience," he says. "I still have a bunch of family over there which is cool, and they were able to show me around the whole area.

"The house we lived in, the hospital I was born in. Things that most people have the luxury of knowing but they maybe don't appreciate. For me it was really cool to get that look into where I came from and get a feel for it.

"I'll be trying to get over again as soon as I can."

Given his roots, and a father who was once voted Orange County Player of the Year, it should come as no surprise that the first sport young PJ tried was, to use his local parlance, soccer.

But after finding it wasn't for him - too much running he suspects - and having already taken a shine to baseball through a video game, he came across an advert for youth team try-outs.

And from there, was it a clear course to the pro game? Not quite.

"My first year, when the ball is just sat in front of you on a tee to hit, I was terrible, could barely hit the thing," he says. "My parents thought that would be the end of it and when I said I wanted to play again it was sort of like 'okay, well if you want'.

"The next year was when the kids are allowed to pitch. I'm a lefty, so they stuck me on the mound with the instruction to just try and throw it over the plate. From there, it went okay."

Okay, of course, is something of an understatement given where he is now.

A touch small for a pitcher at a shade under six feet tall, Conlon's fastest pitch tops out at around 90mph in an era when more and more are nudging past 100mph on the radar gun.

Instead of force, the crafty left-hander works with finesse, a style that saw him named Mets Organisational Pitcher of the Year, an award he was able to pick up in front of a big crowd at the team's Citi Field home with his proud girlfriend Jackie watching on.

A call-up to the big show could come as soon as next month, although it is suspected a promotion from the brilliantly named Binghamton Rumble Ponies to the Las Vegas 51s to begin next season is more likely as a final step before cracking the primary roster.

Whenever that summons does come, his standing as Belfast's first Major Leaguer since Henry "Irish" McIlveen played his final game for what would become the world famous New York Yankees in 1909 will be front and centre in his thoughts.

Conlon has already helped spread the gospel of hardball to his Belfast family - while most in the city still can't tell their Mike Trouts from their Tim Salmons, his dad's cousin has an Anaheim Angels tattoo - and you can be sure if he keeps on this track interest locally will be further piqued.

"I've thought about that a lot," he says enthusiastically.

"A lot of people reach out to me because of where I was born, and even the family I have over there are able to tell me that baseball is getting a bit more familiar over in Belfast.

"If I did make it to the majors I'd love to do something over there and try to promote the game.

"It would mean a lot to me if I was able to help in any way to grow the sport where I was born."

That whole cheese on apple pie idea may never catch on, but with Conlon's rising star, baseball just might.

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