Obituary: Rheal Cormier (1967-2021)

RIP to Rheal Cormier, a lefty pitcher in the majors for 16 years and a member of multiple Canadian national teams as well. He died on March 8, about a year after being diagnosed with pancreatic cancer. He was 53 years old. Cormier played for the St. Louis Cardinals (1991-94), Boston Red Sox (1995, 1999-2000), Montreal Expos (1996-97), Philadelphia Phillies (2001-2006) and Cincinnati Reds (2006-07).

Cormier was remembered fondly by his friends and former teammates. “He brightened up every room he walked into,” said Dan Plesac on Twitter. “He was one of my all time favs. RIP Frenchy.”

Cormier was inducted into the Canadian Baseball Hall of Fame in 2012. “We are deeply saddened by the passing of Rheal Cormier,” said Scott Crawford, the Hall’s director of operations. “Not only was he one of the greatest major league relief pitchers to ever come from Canada, but he was a wonderful and charismatic guy who was proud of his Canadian roots and loved his family deeply… 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.”

Rheal Paul Cormier was born in Moncton, New Brunswick, Canada, on April 23, 1967, and grew up in the small town of Cap-Pele, N.B. His father was a truck driver, and his mother worked seasonal jobs and took Cormier and his brothers to baseball practice. The children — four boys as well as a daughter — played baseball because hockey equipment was too expensive. He started representing Canada in baseball tournaments at an early age, as he pitched for Canada’s Junior National Team in 1985 and Team Canada at the 1987 Pan Am Games. When he wasn’t playing on national teams, Cormier was attending Polyvalente Louis J. Robichaud High School in Moncton and also pitching for the Moncton Mets amateur team. In 1996 alone, he threw a no-hitter for the Mets, shut out an All-Star team from Rhode Island and struck out five of the six batters he faced at an Expos tryout camp.

Cormier with the St. Petersburg Cardinals. Source: The Tampa Tribune, August 18, 1989.

“The JUGS gun has timed his fastball at 88 mph,” Moncton player-coach Bill Lee (yes, that Bill Lee) said of the 19-year-old lefty. “He’s got a good deuce [curveball[ and slider and a straight change. He’s the French-Canadian kid the Expos have been looking for.” The Expos offered him a contract, but he opted to continue playing and attend the Community College of Rhode Island in Warwick.

When he left for the United States, Cormier could read English but not speak it. He later said that if he wanted to see what kind of pitcher he really was, it would have to be in the United States. Canadian weather didn’t really allow him to play baseball more than four months out of the year, but baseball became a near year-round life in the States.

“I played volleyball and soccer in high school,” he said. “I thought, coming from where I came from, I didn’t have a real chance in anything else.”

Cormier and the Canadian team finished fourth at the 1987 Pan Am Games. The team, which also included future big-leaguer Denis Boucher, was coached by Ferguson Jenkins. Jenkins even taught Cormier a split-fingered fastball. The following year, he took the Rhode Island school to the National Junior College Baseball World Series. In a remarkable string, he did not allow an earned from from March 23 to June 2, before getting battered by San Jacinto CC in the tournament. The team, which also had brother Donald Cormier at second base, finished third overall.

When it came time for the 1988 Major League Amateur Draft in June, Cormier was selected by the St. Louis Cardinals in the Sixth Round. He would have started his professional career then, but he had the Canadian Olympic Baseball team to think about. Team Canada fell out of contention in Seoul early with losses to South Korea and Australia, but the team did beat the United States 8-7. Cormier got the start and outdueled Team USA starter Jim Abbott.

Cormier debuted in the minor leagues in 1989 with the St. Petersburg Cardinals of the Florida State League and ended up among the league leaders in most pitching categories. He had a 12-7 record and 2.23 ERA while striking out 122 batters in 169-2/3 innings. One wonders if his offseason workout regimen had anything to do with it. “My older brother and I worked as lumberjacks in the summer to help us get through college,” he explained. “It’s great because you build your arms up doing it.”

By 1990 — his second season in the minors — Cormier had his first taste of AA baseball. By the following year, he was in the major leagues, somewhat unexpectedly. He missed time in AAA Louisville with a sore left shoulder, and he wasn’t very effective when he pitched. Still, the Cardinals brought him to the major leagues in August and gave him his first career start against the New York Mets on August 15, 1991. He allowed 7 hits and a run in 6 innings to pick up the 4-1 win over New York. It was the first win by a left-handed starter for the Cardinals all season long.

Cormier made 10 starts and a relief appearance for the ’91 Cardinals and finished with a 4-5 record and a 4.12 ERA. He threw a couple of complete games, struck out 38 batters and walked a mere 8 hitters in 67-2/3 innings. He also became the pride and joy of Cap-Pele. “My God, when he pitched his first (major-league) game, we were all at the pub watching it on TV. I thought the roof was going to come off,” Harvey Richard, a grocer in town, told The Vancouver Sun.

Cormier’s first start of 1992 was in Montreal, on April 13. In order to keep the pitcher from getting too worked up, Cardinals manager blocked all incoming phone calls to his hotel room, except for Cormier’s wife Lucienne and roommate Donovan Osborne’s fiancée. His mother was in attendance to see him pitch, and he didn’t do badly. Aside from a leadoff home run by Delino DeShields, Cormier lasted 5 innings and gave up 2 additional runs, both unearned. It wasn’t enough, as the Expos won 3-2.

Cormier’s season spiraled downward from there. He lost his first five decisions and had an ERA of 6.56 by the end of May. Even after winning a few ballgames, Cormier had a 3-10 record as of August 14. He then rattled off an impressive 7 consecutive wins to end the year with a 10-10 record and a respectable 3.68 ERA. In one of his last games, he fanned 10 Phillies and allowed just 1 unearned run in an 8-1 complete game win.

The Cardinals hoped that Cormier’s strong finish would carry over to 1993. While he was expected to be a big part of the starting rotation, he was inconsistent and ended up moving in and out of the rotation, starting 21 games and coming out of the bullpen in 17 others. The 1994 season was even more frustrating, as he managed just 7 starts with the Cardinals in the strike-shortened season. After being on the disabled list with a sore shoulder, Cormier was activated in mid-May and threw a strong 5 innings against Montreal to pick up a win. Then he hurt a back muscle before his next start against the Florida Marlins and was pulled from the game before he even threw a pitch. When the season ended in August, he had a 3-2 record and 5.45 ERA.

Even the drive from St. Louis to New Brunswick was an exercise in frustration. Cormier, his wife, their dog and 5-month-old son took off driving and reached Harrisburg, Pa., 13 hours later. They wanted to find a hotel for the night but couldn’t find any hotel with a vacancy. They didn’t know the 1994 Woodstock concert was taking place at that time, and there wasn’t a hotel room to be found for miles around. They drove until they reached Maine and saw a ramp marked “Tewksbury Exit.” “I told myself, ‘This has got to be it,.’ Sure enough we found a room. I said, ‘Thank you, Bob,'” he related, referring to fellow Cards pitcher Bob Tewksbury.

The Cardinals, having been in playoff contention without actually reaching the postseason, shook up the roster, trading Cormier and outfielder Mark Whiten to the Boston Red Sox for pitcher Cory Baily and infielder Scott Cooper. Boston gave him 12 starts in 1995 but found he was a very valuable middle reliever. He warmed up quickly, threw three quality pitches and understood his unglamorous but necessary role. The Red Sox would have used him in the starting rotation more, but that would have put a big hole in the bullpen. “Being a relief pitcher takes a totally different approach, and I have a lot to learn,” he told The Boston Globe. “I’ve come through. And that’s what counts.”

In 115 innings of work, Cormier had a 4.07 ERA and a 7-5 record. The Sox finished in first place in the AL East, and he played in the postseason for the first time in his career. Boston lost to Cleveland in the AL Division Series, and he worked in two of the games, allowing a run in 2/3 of an inning.

After the season, Cormier was on the move again, heading to Montreal in a trade. There had been rumors of trades to the Expos when he was in St. Louis, and he was coy about the move. When the deal finally went down, he was willing to open up. “I’ve never hid the fact that I always dreamed of one day playing for the Expos,” he said.

The Expos put Cormier back into the starting rotation, and he started 27 of his 33 appearances in 1996. He threw 159-2/3 innings, which was third on the staff behind Jeff Fassero and Pedro Martinez. The record of 7-10 wasn’t great, but his ERA was 4.17 and his ERA+ was 103 — meaning he was slightly above average as a starter. The control was once again excellent, as he had just 41 walks against 100 strikeouts. His first win of the season was the only shutout of his career, as he blanked the Cardinals on 3 hits on April 22 while striking out 9 in an 8-0 win.

By mid-July, Cormier was bothered by a twinge in his left elbow. It started to affect his reliability and continued over to the spring of 1997. Once the season got underway, Cormier made his start in Colorado on April 5. He had a 1-2-3 first inning but was rocked for 5 runs in the second. Dante Bichette hit a 2-run homer for the big blow, and Cormier was yanked after giving up an RBI single to Rockies pitcher Roger Bailey. A little over a month later, he underwent a tendon transplant surgery in his elbow, ending his season. Cormier became a free agent after the season and signed with Cleveland, but he was able to do was make 3 rehab starts for AA Akron, allowing 7 runs in 9-2/3 innings.

From 1999 until his retirement in 2007, Cormier never started another game in the majors — that’s 514 games over the next nine seasons. He began his reinvention into a reliever with the Red Sox in 1999. By then he was 32 and had barely pitched in the last two years, but he turned in an excellent season, with a 2-0 record and 3.69 ERA in 60 games. He was the second-busiest reliever behind Derek Lowe. The Red Sox won 94 games and finished second in the AL East, but they won the AL Wild Card and beat Cleveland in the ALDS. Cormier pitched in 2 games and had 4 scoreless innings of work, and then he appeared in 4 games against the Yankees in the AL Championship Series. He had 3-2/3 scoreless innings there, though he allowed the go-ahead run to score in Game Two. He entered the game in the bottom of the seventh inning with runners on the corners and two outs. Cormier had an 0-2 count on Paul O’Neill, but the Yankee outfielder smacked the next pitch into center field to score Chuck Knoblauch and give New York a 3-2 lead. Starter Ramon Martinez, who allowed Knoblauch to reach base with an RBI double, took the loss.

Cormier had one more season with the Red Sox before signing a 3-year, $8.75 million contract with the Philadelphia Phillies. By then, Cormier had come a long way from his modest upbringing in Cap-Pele. One of the things he did with his money was to build a house for his parents, so his mother could retire from bagging lobsters. He tried to get his father to retire as well, but he kept working because he wanted to work. He never forgot about where he came from, and he was nominated for the Roberto Clemente Award while with the Expos for his work with teenage anti-drug and anti-suicide groups. “I don’t feel bad about the area I lived in,” he told the Globe in 2000. “I cherish every moment we had.”

Cormier helped to stabilize what had been a pretty terrible Phillies bullpen. Some of his seasons weren’t memorable, as happens to relievers, but he had the best season of his career in 2003. In 65 games, he had an 8-0 record, 1.70 ERA and 1 of his 2 career saves. He allowed just 54 hits in 84-2/3 innings and walked 25 for a WHIP of 0.933. He also struck out 67 batters. After a couple of rough seasons that saw him try the patience of manager Larry Bowa, he became the MVP of the staff.

“I know how it felt last year, when I was getting booed, and I don’t want to be on that side of things again,” he said. “When things started clicking this year, I started to get confidence and pitching is all confidence.”

As noted, being a reliever is a very up-and-down job. In 2004, Cormier had a 3.56 ERA for the Phillies. In 2005, it ballooned up to 5.89 as he tried to pitch his way through shoulder tendonitis. He didn’t allow an earned run in the month of September after taking some much-needed time off.

Cormier’s last great season was 2006. Used in a more specialized LOOGY (left-handed one-out guy) role, he had a 1.59 ERA through 43 games with the Phillies, picking up a 2-2 record. He walked and struck out 13 batters each and had a WHIP of 1.176. He was sent to the Cincinnati Reds, who were fighting for a Wild Card, in exchange for pitcher Justin Germano in a trade deadline deal on July 31. He got into 21 more games with the Reds and wasn’t as effective, with a 4.50 ERA. He started the 2007 season by picking up 3 holds in his first 5 games, facing a batter or two per game. He had one extended appearance on April 18 and allowed 3 runs to score in 1-1/3 innings against the Astros. That game, which came five days before his 40th birthday, was his last in the majors. He was designated for assignment and then released on May 9. He signed a minor-league deal with the Braves in an attempt to return to the majors. He pitched well in 5 relief outings, but with no promotion in sight, he announced his retirement in July.

In his 16 seasons in the major leagues, Cormier appeared in 683 games, including 108 starts. He had a 71-64 record with a 4.03 ERA, along with 760 strikeouts. He had a low walks-per-9-inning rate of 2.3, and his ERA+ was 105. Baseball Reference has him worth 9.5 Wins Above Replacement. His 363 appearances with the Phillies puts him second on the team’s all-time list for a southpaw pitcher, trailing Tug McGraw. He’s also second in games among Canadian pitchers in the major leagues, behind Paul Quantril.

Cormier and his wife applied for and received their U.S. citizenship in 2004 — both their children were born in the United States. Even so, he continued to represent Canada on the international stage whenever possible. He was part of the 2006 World Baseball Classic and the 2008 Canadian Olympic team in Beijing. At 41, he was the oldest baseball player at the Olympics. “I talked to my family, and my kids and my wife felt it was a good opportunity to represent my country in the Olympics,” he said, adding that he was hopeful a good outing might get him back into professional baseball. “We’ll see what happens, but if this is the last shot that I get, it’s fine. I’m totally content with how my career’s gone, but if there’s an opportunity to catch on with a team, I’d take it.”

After his playing career, Cormier and his family settled in Utah, and it sounds like he spent his last decade just enjoying life as a husband and father, which sounds pretty perfect. Cormier was elected to the Canadian Baseball Hall of Fame in 2012, as part of the class that included Rusty Staub, executive Doug Melvin and Canada’s 2001 Senior National Team, which won a gold medal at the Pan Am Games. He threw out the first pitch at Philadelphia’s Citizens Bank Park in 2014, commemorating the 10th anniversary of his first appearance as a Phillie. He is associated with a bit of that ballpark’s history, having picked up the first win by a Phillie pitcher there. He also had the last Phillies win at the old Veterans Stadium in 2003.

For more information: Philadelphia Phillies
Canadian Baseball Hall of Fame

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