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 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, he 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.
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, Rheal 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.
Rheal and the Canadian team finished fourth at the 1987 Pan Am Games. The team was coached by Ferguson Jenkins. Jenkins even taught him 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 23rd to June 2nd, before getting battered by San Jacinto CC in the tournament.
When it came time for the 1988 Major League Amateur Draft in June, Rheal 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. Rheal got the start and outdueled Team USA starter Jim Abbott.
He 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.
By 1990 he 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.
Rheal made 10 starts and a relief appearance for the ’91 Cardinals. He threw a couple of complete games, struck out 38 batters and walked a mere 8 hitters in 67-2/3 innings.
His first start of 1992 was in Montreal, on April 13th. Rheal’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, He had a 3-10 record as of August 14th. He then rattled off an impressive 7 consecutive wins to end the year with a respectable 3.68 ERA.
The Cardinals hoped that Rheal’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, he was activated in mid-May. 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.
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.
The Red Sox 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.
In 115 innings of work, Rheal 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. They lost to Cleveland in the AL Division Series, and Rheal worked in two of the games, allowing a run in 2/3 of an inning.
After the season, Rheal was on the move again, heading to Montreal in a trade. The Expos put him back into the starting rotation. By mid-July, he 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, he made his start in Colorado on April 5th. A little over a month later, he underwent a tendon transplant surgery in his elbow, ending his season. He became a free agent after the season and signed with Cleveland, but all he was able to do was make 3 rehab starts for AA Akron.
From 1999 until his retirement in 2007, Rheal never started another game in the majors. 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. 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. Rheal 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. Rheal 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.
He had one more season with the Red Sox before signing a 3-year, $8.75 million contract with the Philadelphia Phillies. 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.
Rheal 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. 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.
His last great season was 2006. He had a 1.59 ERA through 43 games with the Phillies. He was sent to the Cincinnati Reds, who were fighting for a Wild Card, in a trade deadline deal on July 31st. He started the 2007 season and had an appearance on April 18th. 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 9th. He signed a minor-league deal with the Braves in an attempt to return to the majors. He pitched well in relief outings, but with no promotion in sight, he announced his retirement in July.
Rheal 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.
After his playing career, Rheal 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. He 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.
Rheal Cormier died on March 8, about a year after being diagnosed with pancreatic cancer. He was 53 years old.