pj connelly

P.J. Connelly on the mound during his collegiate career at ECU.

P.J. Connelly would be linked to Greenville, North Carolina and East Carolina University for the remainder of time even if he had not ran and been elected the town’s mayor a handful of years ago.

As a younger man, Connelly was recruited to play baseball at ECU after being drafted by the Montreal Expos out of Beloit Memorial High School in 2001 and again by the Florida Marlins out of community college a year later.

“I always knew that I wanted to play baseball down in the south,” Connelly said. “When I came down to Greenville, it was an attractive place. People were very welcoming. When I came here, the tradition of the baseball program was very strong and I knew it was a place I could call home for the remainder of my college career.”

Electing not to enter professional baseball either time, Connelly instead decided to finish his collegiate career at ECU, spending two seasons donning the purple and gold for head coach Randy Mazey.

“To me, it just wasn’t the right time to do it (turn pro),” Connelly said. “I felt like I wanted to further my education, didn’t feel like I was ready to jump into the minor league system. I think I made the right decision by going to a four-year school and getting my degree and then going to play professional baseball.”

When Connelly stepped onto campus in 2004, he joined a baseball program that was in the middle of making seven consecutive Regional appearances. In 2003, under the direction of Mazey, the Pirates went 34-27-1, finished fifth in the Conference USA standings and were bounced from the Atlanta Regional with a 9-4 loss to Stetson University.

Just a season later, however, ECU won 51 games to set a program record for most victories in a single season. A 25-5 conference record by year’s end, the 2004 Pirates began the season a perfect 12-0 and completed the campaign ranked as high as eighth in the national polls.

“That was the last year that we played on Harrington Field before Clark-LeClair Stadium was built,” Connelly said. “That was a really neat atmosphere. Of course the fact that we just kept winning and winning and winning was really exciting, and to be able to have the support that Pirate Nation always shows for all the baseball teams over the years was incredible.”

As a goodbye of sorts to Harrington Field, the Pirates consistently put on stellar performance after stellar performance. With the help of an offense that hit .318 in 2004, ECU scored 32 runs against the University of Cincinnati on April 17 to shatter yet another school record after racking up 24 runs in a win over the University of North Carolina at Charlotte just days prior.

“We had some great hitters that year,” Connelly said. “We were very, very fortunate. I think that was probably what set us apart from many of the other teams in the area. Just the fact that we had such great hitting and we had a great pitching staff to go along with it.”

In just 28 innings pitched during his first season with the Pirates, Connelly posted a 4.50 ERA while walking more batters (20) than he struck out (18) as his team collected a 3.77 staff ERA and nine shutouts (tied for most in program history).

While Connelly was a contributor to a historic ECU team, he will be most remembered for a start early in the 2005 season. Not long after the Pirates’ last home game at Harrington Field in early March of 2004, construction began on what would become Clark-LeClair Stadium.

Named, in part, after legendary coach Keith LeClair, the stadium saw its first action on March 4, 2005. Opened in time to hold the second annual Keith LeClair Classic, Connelly earned the honor of becoming the first pitcher to throw a competitive pitch in the new ballpark.

“It was very special,” Connelly said. “To have the opportunity to be the first person to pitch in the stadium against Michigan was a great opportunity and a memory that I’ll always remember the rest of my life. Just knowing how historic that moment was for the university, for the stadium itself, to be able to be a part of it was very special.”

A masterpiece of an outing, Connelly lasted seven innings, scattering four hits and an earned run while striking out five Michigan batters.

Forever able to point to that moment as a memorable part of his life, Connelly, now the mayor of Greenville, says he still gets diehard Pirate fans who come up to him and know he was part of history on that March morning in front of 4,400 fans.

After completing his career with a 4.26 ERA across 69.2 innings pitched in 2005, Connelly turned to independant ball before spending two seasons in the Los Angeles Angels’ minor league system.

Never advancing past Single-A in his time in professional baseball, Connelly says a shoulder injury derailed what could have been a longer career. In his last stop with the Cedar Rapids Kernels in 2007, Connelly posted a 5.50 ERA across 18 innings before running into the aforementioned injury.

“At the time, I think it was the right decision to make,” Connelly said regarding his decision to retire from professional baseball in 2007. “You always second guess your decision. Something that you put a tremendous amount of time and effort into over the years. It took me about three years before I could really watch a game again. If baseball came on the TV, I turned it off. I just didn’t want to watch and bring back memories from when I played.”

Now a fan of baseball once again, Connelly says the relationships he made during his career carry more weight for him than his on-field accomplishments.

While at ECU, Connelly did not win any major awards or amass gaudy numbers. What he did do, however, was develop friendships that will last a lifetime and christen a baseball stadium that has remained at the center of the Greenville community for the last 15 years.

“I used to go into one of the local Bojangles here and I’d see it on the wall, they’ve got a picture of the first pitch,” Connelly said. “That’s kind of like my moment of fame right there.

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