Rheal Cormier almost made it through his Canadian Baseball Hall of Fame induction speech without tears.
But when it came time to talk about his father, Ronald, who passed away last September, the Cap-Pele, N.B., native couldn’t contain his emotions.
At a pre-ceremony press conference on Saturday, Cormier recounted how his father, a truck driver who despite the financial challenges of raising five kids in a volatile Maritime economy, did everything he could to help him achieve his dream of playing in the big leagues.
“I came from a poor family but my parents always encouraged me to aim higher,” said Cormier. “They told me to give 100 per cent in everything I do. They taught me to give everything I had.”
That work ethic helped propel the Canuck southpaw, who was inducted into the St. Marys, Ont.-based ball shrine on Saturday alongside Rusty Staub, Doug Melvin and the 2011 Canadian Senior National Team that won gold at the Pan Am Games, to a 16-year major league career that saw him pitch in 683 games – the second most by a Canadian.
Not bad for a Maritime kid whose high school didn’t even have a baseball team. The youngest of five children, Cormier first picked up a baseball glove when he was five years old. He soon fell in love with the Montreal Expos and fondly recalls watching games on an old TV that only had three channels.
“I remember watching Steve Rogers, (Warren) Cromartie, (Andre) Dawson, (Bill) Gullickson, and (Gary) Carter,” he said.
A standout in Cap-Pele’s minor baseball ranks, Cormier was encouraged by his Pee Wee coach Freddy Cormier (no relation) to play in Moncton, where the competition would be stronger. His dad would take time off of work to drive him 40 minutes to games in the city.
“My dad believed that you can dream as big as you want, but when you play a sport, you should give it to the max, because the fact is, you just never know who’s watching. You don’t want to go back and say, ‘Well, if I pushed myself a little bit more, what could’ve happened?’ But if you do it to the max and you don’t get to the next level, at least you left it all out there,” recalled Cormier.
So Cormier gave baseball everything he had and he did make it to the next level. Barely able to speak a word of English, he trekked to a tryout camp for the Canadian Junior National Team (JNT) in Waterloo, Ont., in 1985.
He would make the team and his efforts with the JNT would lead to him being recruited (along with his brother, Donny) by the Community College of Rhode Island (CCRI). In two college seasons (1987 and 1988), he would register a 19-1 record and lead the team to a third-place finish at the Junior College World Series.
To help pay for his education, Cormier, along with his brothers and his dad, worked as lumberjacks in the Acadian Peninsula in December 1987. They were able to sell the wood they cut to pay for Cormier’s tuition for the spring 1988 semester.
“I remember the last day we went out there. It was minus 45,” recalled Cormier.
On the diamond, however, it wasn’t his lumber skills that appealed to scouts, but rather his golden left arm. Earlier that year, he had pitched for Canada at the Pan Am Games, but it was his breakout performance at the Intercontinental Cup in Cuba – in which he registered a 3-0 record and a 0.57 ERA – the same year that inspired more scouts to follow him. Prior to pitching for Canada at the 1988 Olympics, Cormier was selected by the St. Louis Cardinals in the sixth round of the draft.
After two-and-a-half seasons in the Cardinals’ minor league system, he would make his big league debut on National Acadian Day – August 15, 1991 – against the New York Mets at Busch Stadium. Unfortunately, Cormier’s call-up happened too quickly for his parents to make plans to be in St. Louis to see it in person, but they watched the game in a bar in Cap-Pele.
“There were about 350 people (from his hometown) in the bar that night. They were watching the game on satellite,” said Cormier. “I still have pictures of all of the people in that bar.”
And Cormier wouldn’t disappoint his hometown supporters, limiting the Mets to one run in six innings in a 4-1 Cardinals’ victory.
After nine more starts with the Cardinals in 1991, Cormier returned to the Cards’ rotation in 1992, but by August 14, his record had dropped to 3-10, before he won his last seven decisions to finish 10-10 with a very respectable 3.68 ERA.
Following two more campaigns with St. Louis, Cormier was dealt to the Red Sox in April 1995. That season, he appeared in 48 regular season contests – including 12 starts – as well as two American League Division Series games. In the off-season, however, he was dealt to the Montreal Expos, the team he grew up cheering for.
“To me, it was a real privilege and blessing to pitch in Montreal,” said Cormier, in a Canadian Baseball Hall of Fame media call in February. “The whole ordeal of playing on home turf was exciting.”
In 27 starts with the Expos in 1996, he secured seven victories. He would make just one start the following campaign before being diagnosed with tendinitis and eventually undergoing Tommy John surgery. He would pitch in just three games in the Cleveland Indians organization in 1998, before returning to the Red Sox in 1999.
In Boston, he was reunited with Joe Kerrigan, who had been his pitching coach in Montreal. Deployed exclusively in relief, Cormier would record a 3.69 ERA in 60 games and toss 7-2/3 shutout innings in the post-season.
After another solid campaign in Beantown, Cormier inked a deal with the Phillies, where he would enjoy his finest big league seasons. Prior to the 2003 campaign, Kerrigan, now the Philadelphia pitching coach, approached the then-35-year-old reliever and told him to add a cutter to his arsenal.
“All winter we would go to this warehouse in Philadelphia and he would catch me,” said Cormier, who recalled that Kerrigan was so excited about the pitch that he summoned Phils’ manager Larry Bowa to come and see it.
Armed with that new pitch, he would go 8-0 with a 1.70 ERA and permit just 54 hits in 84-2/3 innings. He would appear in 84 more games (third most in the National League) out of the Phillies’ pen the following season and make 57 more appearances in 2005.
Prior to the 2006 campaign, he held South Africa and Mexico scoreless for Canada in two appearances in the World Baseball Classic. Once the regular season got started he would register a tidy 1.59 ERA in 43 contests with the Phillies, before being dealt to the Cincinnati Reds at the trade deadline. He would pitch for the Reds for the first month of the 2007 season, before retiring.
But a 41-year-old Cormier would return to toss 2-1/3 scoreless innings for Canada at the 2008 Olympics, before hanging up his spikes for good. He now resides in Park City, Utah, with his wife Lucienne and two children, son Justin and daughter Morgan.
“I don’t really watch games anymore. I just watch highlights,” said Cormier, who has taken up mountain biking and golfing.
He has tried to teach his children the same types of values that his father instilled in him. He wants his children to give everything they have in whatever they decide to do, and judging by the sparkle in his eyes when he speaks of them, they must be doing just that.
You get the feeling that his father would be proud.
FUN FACTS ABOUT CORMIER:
The first big league batter he faced was New York Mets second baseman Keith Miller at Busch Stadium on August 15, 1991. Miller grounded out to second base.
Cormier fared well against fellow Canadian big leaguers Matt Stairs (Saint John, N.B.) and Larry Walker (Maple Ridge, B.C.). The two Canuck sluggers were a combined eight for 40 off of him with no home runs.
Eleven players who are now in the National Baseball Hall of Fame faced Cormier. Cooperstowners Roberto Alomar, Wade Boggs, Gary Carter, Andre Dawson, Tony Gwynn, Rickey Henderson, Barry Larkin, Paul Molitor, Eddie Murray, Cal Ripken Jr. and Ryne Sandberg all walked to the plate at one point in their careers against the Canadian southpaw.
Cormier has faced four of his fellow Canadian Baseball Hall of Famers – Carter, Dawson, Alomar and Tony Fernandez.
No slouch at the plate, Cormier recorded 11 hits for the St. Louis Cardinals in 1993 and notched the only triple by an Expos pitcher in 1996. His three-bagger came off of Colorado right-hander Jamey Wright on July 29, 1996 in a 4-1 Expos’ win.
Rich Hoffman, a former pitcher in the Cardinals organization and Cormier’s first roommate, spoke about the Canuck lefty’s competitive fire at the Hall of Fame ceremony on Saturday. “We were playing the Astros (Single-A Osceola Astros) and Rheal has two strikes on one of their batters . . . Rheal throws one high and inside and the player goes down and gets up and dusts himself off and looks out towards the mound. And Rheal just looks back and says, ‘Are you going to charge the mound? If not, get back in the box, so I can strike you out.’”