By Kevin Glew
Cooperstowners in Canada
Longtime big league pitcher and Cap-Pele, N.B., native Rheal Cormier, who was inducted into the Canadian Baseball Hall of Fame in 2012, has passed away at the age of 53 after a courageous battle with pancreatic cancer.
“We are deeply saddened by the passing of Rheal Cormier,” said Scott Crawford, the Canadian Baseball Hall of Fame’s director of operations. “Not only was he was one of the greatest major league relief pitchers ever to come from Canada, but he was a wonderful and charismatic guy who was proud of his Canadian roots and loved his family deeply. That was clear at his induction ceremony in 2012. I can’t recall another inductee who had more family in attendance at their ceremony. We would like to extend our deepest condolences to his wife Lucienne, son Justin and daughter Morgan at this difficult time.”
Born in Cap-Pele, N.B., in 1967, Cormier enjoyed a 16-season major league career that saw him pitch in 683 games – the second most by a Canadian.
That was a tremendous accomplishment for a Maritimer 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 fell in love with the Montreal Expos watching their games on an old TV that only had three channels.
At a press conference prior to his induction into the Canadian Baseball Hall of Fame in 2012, Cormier recounted how his father, Ronald, a truck driver who despite the financial challenges of raising five kids in a volatile Maritime economy, and his mother, Jeanette, did everything they 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 in 2012. “They told me to give 100 per cent in everything I do. They taught me to give everything I had.”
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 in an interview in 2012.
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 in Waterloo, Ont., in 1985.
He would make the team and his efforts with the Junior National Team 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,” Cormier told me back in 2012.
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 MLB draft.
After two-and-a-half seasons in the Cardinals’ minor league system, he made 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 in 2012. “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 Cardinals’ 4-1 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 respectable 3.68 ERA.
Following two more campaigns with the Cardinals, 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 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 2012. “The whole ordeal of playing on home turf was exciting.”
In 27 starts with the Expos in 1996, he secured seven victories, but he made just one start the following campaign before being diagnosed with tendinitis and eventually undergoing Tommy John surgery. He pitched 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 Philadelphia Phillies, where he enjoyed his finest big league seasons. Prior to the 2003 campaign, Kerrigan, now the Phillies 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 went 8-0 with a 1.70 ERA and permitted just 54 hits in 84 2/3 innings. He appeared in 84 more games (third most in the National League) out of the Phillies’ pen the following season and made 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 registered 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 returned to toss 2 1/3 scoreless innings for Canada at the 2008 Olympics, before hanging up his spikes for good.
Away from the field during his playing career, Cormier was involved in many charitable causes. When he was with the Expos, he served as a spokesman for teenage anti-suicide and anti-drug campaigns. And while with the Phillies, he made generous contributions to team’s foundation and visited patients in area hospitals.
In recent years, he resided in Park City, Utah with his family. As noted earlier, he was elected to the Canadian Baseball Hall of Fame in St. Marys, Ont., in 2012.
“Rheal was one of the most vibrant people I’ve had the pleasure of knowing,” said friend and former teammate Jim Thome in a Phillies news release on Monday. “He loved baseball, but he always put his family first. Frenchy was the kind of guy who would do anything for you and I’m lucky to have called him my friend for many years. Our time spent together in Philadelphia as teammates was unforgettable. He will be greatly missed but never forgotten.”
Cormier is survived by his wife Lucienne and two children, son Justin and daughter Morgan.
Funeral arrangements are pending.