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Belfast takes the trouble to celebrate its sole Pirates connection

Pirates fever traditionally begins to wane here by the end of April, but there's one place on Earth where Bucco baseball is about to experience a sudden surge of fandom, if only for one day: Belfast, Northern Ireland.

Belfast's only native-born Major Leaguer, Henry McIlveen, also known as "Irish" and "Lefty," made his pitching debut with the Pirates on July 4, 1906. Belfast's decade-old baseball team, the NorthStars, plans to honor McIlveen by wearing Pirates caps for its July 1 game — and, who knows, perhaps by losing.

McIlveen's record, admits NorthStars team chairman Simon Doyle, is "far from exceptional." After five appearances with the Pirates, he was off the team. Then it was on to Steubenville, Akron and Newark before landing with the New York Highlanders, predecessors of the Yankees, where he played the outfield in 1908. He quit baseball early the next year.

"No one outside Belfast baseball knows of McIlveen," says Doyle, interviewed via e-mail from his reporting desk at the Irish News. "And no one in Belfast baseball knew about him until three years ago. I discovered McIlveen entirely by accident while attempting to find out how many baseball diamonds were located in Ireland."

The answer: one, in Dublin. According to Baseball Almanac, there have been 37 Ireland-born MLB players, but only one of them played between 1918 and today: Joe Cleary, in 1945.

"Cleary still holds the major-league record for the pitcher with the highest ERA," Doyle says. "He played one game and it was a disaster."

Most Irish ballplayers, Doyle adds, came to America as children and learned the game here. He figures today's six-team Adult Irish Baseball League won't be producing a pro any time soon. "Gaelic games, rugby and soccer are the most popular [sports] both north and south," he says.

Still, the NorthStars have 30 players and even a farm team, the Belfast Wolves — really a second local squad that couldn't field enough players each week to stay in the league.

"For the first few years of league play, the NorthStars were the whipping boys," Doyle reports; they finished tied for fourth place at 11-7 during their best season three years ago. They are 1-6 so far in 2006. Doyle blames the injury-induced retirement of Terry Rosbotham, Belfast's first and only representative on the Ireland National team.

"Rosbotham," Doyle reports, "is a long-suffering Pirates fan. Even though he is retired, he comes to [NorthStars] practice every week wearing black and gold. He goes to Pittsburgh from time to time and seems to enjoy it, even if he rarely sees the Pirates win."

New Yorkers will have to wait until 2008, the centennial of McIlveen's play on "the worst team in New York Yankees franchise history," as Doyle puts it, to see their cap atop the black-and-white clad NorthStars. Meanwhile, Belfast is hoping to honor its MVP this year with a McIlveen trophy.

McIlveen might win more notice here if another part of his legacy were better known: He helped make the Nittany Lion Penn State's mascot. Penn State began publicizing the story two years ago and received some notice in the Washington, Pa., edition of the Post-Gazette, but McIlveen's Pirates connection wasn't mentioned.

"McIlveen pitched for Penn State from 1903 to 1906," says Doyle. "It was McIlveen's close friend Harry Mason who came up with the idea for the Nittany Lion. Mason made the boast in 1904 that the Nittany Lion could beat the Princeton Tiger, and in doing so put pressure on McIlveen to go out and win the game [against Princeton], which he did quite comfortably. ... [H]ad he lost that game, we would never have heard of the Nittany Lion again."

We mainly hear of the Nittany Lion during football games, of course.

"Football has a bigger following in Northern Ireland than baseball," Doyle admits, thanks to television coverage. "There is also a Steelers bar in north Belfast, which I have always been puzzled by." There is, too, the almost inevitable local Dan Rooney tie, in this case to the city of Newry.

McIlveen, Doyle says, lettered in basketball and football while at Penn State. You can almost hear Doyle shrug from across the pond: "Maybe McIlveen picked the wrong sport."

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