When PJ Conlon dons his green Brooklyn Cyclones cap before Thursday’s Irish Heritage Night, his unusual path to professional ball will come full circle.
Conlon is not just another player with Irish ancestry – he is the only Cyclones player ever born there.
His mother Susan was born in Scotland, while his father Patrick grew up in Ireland. Their families both moved to California and the two met while in college. They married after graduating and moved back to Northern Ireland, where PJ was born in 1993.
But the homecoming was short-lived. Soon after Conlon’s birth, violence surged in Northern Ireland during an especially violent period in the forty-year ethnic conflict known as The Troubles.
The tension between Catholics and Protestants grew particularly heated near the Conlon home along Falls Road and the family decided to move to California in late 1995.
Brooklyn’s reliever remembers little from his first two years in Belfast, but has made it a point to learn about the area’s history.
“I’ve looked into all The Troubles from that time and the war,” he said. “Some of the things I’ve seen were really awful and so was some of the stuff my dad told me.”
After arriving in southern California, Conlon began playing sports at a young age but never took to soccer – Ireland’s most popular sport and the one his father played at Cal State Fullerton. Instead, he surprised his parents by signing up for T-Ball.
“I was awful. I couldn’t hit the ball off a tee or anything,” he laughs. But the southpaw found his niche the next year when the league let youngsters pitch for the first time.
“I had perfect mechanics. I had better mechanics than I have now. I got on the mound and it was just natural,” he remembered.
Things fell into place from there. Conlon excelled in high school and in travel ball before playing three years at the University of San Diego. After he posted a 2.17 ERA this spring, the Mets drafted Conlon in the 13th round and assigned the 21-year-old to Brooklyn.
Moving across the country just days after the draft might be daunting for some players, but it is far from Conlon’s most interesting journey. He considers his trip back to Belfast at age sixteen one of his most formative experiences.
After reconnecting with family across the Atlantic, Conlon walked through the neighborhood he once called home. “I got to see the house I actually lived in, the hospital I was born in,” he said. “It was crazy.”
Conlon was also struck by the region’s history. He remembers studying murals throughout Belfast and researching the depictions. Some of the paintings left a lasting impression.
“There were these hunger strikers that were put in prison,” he recalled. “They were prisoners of war but they were treated awfully. To protest that they all went on hunger strike one after the other, and there were maybe eight or ten of them. And there were huge murals of these guys – they were all over the place.”
The frequent violence in Northern Ireland has largely subsided since the Good Friday Agreement in 1998 and Conlon had only positive impressions from his trip.
“I didn’t see or experience anything with tension,” he said. “Nothing that mirrored how bad it used to be.”
After talking with Irish cousins and others his age, Conlon was surprised to discover how many people were familiar with baseball. Certain family members have taken a particular interest.
“My dad’s cousin over there has come over to California a couple times and he’s fallen in love with baseball,” he said. “Now he’s a huge Angels fan. He’s got an Angels tattoo, stays up late to watch all the games. They’ve actually really taken to it.”
Conlon stays in frequent touch with his family in California and in Ireland, where a local newspaper recently published a story on his rise to professional baseball. He hopes to become the first Irish-born player to reach the majors since 1945 and has a large contingent rooting him on from Belfast.
“We’re a very close family so I’m getting texts or calls pretty much every day from someone,” Conlon said.
While interest in Conlon’s story has brought some American flavor to Northern Ireland, Irish culture has had plenty of influence on the lefty. On a recent road trip to Auburn, he joined a few teammates for dinner at an Irish pub attached to the hotel. While other Cyclones pored over the menu, Conlon ordered without hesitation. He got the shepherd’s pie.
“As soon as I saw it on the menu I knew I had to get it,” he said.
Conlon has impressed on the mound this year, tossing five scoreless relief innings to begin his professional career. His path may someday lead to a diamond in Queens or, perhaps, back to Ireland – a place he is eager to visit again.
For now, though, he brings an impressive slider and some history to Brooklyn.
--Stu Johnson for BrooklynCyclones.com