The Cardinals and Dan Duquette played a prominent role in shaping the baseball career of Rheal Cormier.
Soon after Cormier debuted in the majors with the Cardinals in 1991, Duquette, the Montreal Expos’ general manager, tried to acquire the French-Canadian.
The Cardinals wouldn’t deal Cormier then, but four years later, when Duquette was general manager of the Red Sox, he did obtain Cormier from the Cardinals. The next year, Duquette sent him to the Expos.
A left-hander, Cormier pitched in the big leagues for 16 years, including the first four with the Cardinals. He died March 8, 2021, at 53.
Cormier was born in the province of New Brunswick on the east coast of Canada. His father, Ronald, was a truck driver. According to the Boston Globe, Cormier’s mother, Jeannette, was 13 when she had the first of her five children with Ronald.
“My father used to say that my mother could get pregnant from eye contact,” Cormier told reporter Gordon Edes.
When Jeannette was 19, and the mother of five, she worked as a packager for a Canadian lobster company.
The Cormier family made their home in the village of Saint-Andre, a potato farming area of New Brunswick. Their house “was little more than a shack,” the Philadelphia Daily News reported. “There was no insulation in the cracked walls. When it snowed, it wasn’t unusual to wake up in the morning to find small white drifts between the beds.”
The family eventually moved into a three-bedroom trailer.
Rheal loved to play baseball. His mother would give him flour to draw bases and foul lines on the pavement, he told the Boston Globe.
“We used to play baseball in the snow banks, sometimes when it was minus-10,” Cormier recalled.
Cormier developed his talent playing in youth leagues. The Expos wanted to sign him when he graduated high school, Cormier told the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, “but the money wasn’t right: $5,000.”
Cormier, whose first language was French, attended a community college in Rhode Island. He got chosen by the Cardinals in the sixth round of the 1988 amateur draft and signed for $35,000.
A few years later, when he started making major-league money, he bought his parents a new house and car.
Cormier played for Team Canada in the 1988 Summer Olympics and entered the Cardinals’ farm system in 1989. According to the Cardinals’ media guide, he spent off-seasons working as a lumberjack.
In August 1991, the Cardinals called up Cormier, 24, from the minors. He made his debut on Aug. 15 in a start against the Mets at St. Louis and got the win. Boxscore
“After I got through the first inning, I told myself, ‘I can pitch here,’ ” Cormier said to the Post-Dispatch.
Cardinals manager Joe Torre said, “I really liked his poise.”
With the win, Cormier became:
_ The first Cardinals starting pitcher to win his debut since Joe Magrane in April 1985.
_ The first Cardinals left-handed starter to win since Magrane in September 1990.
_ The first French-Canadian to win in the National League since Claude Raymond for the Expos in April 1971.
_ The first French-Canadian to win for the Cardinals since Ron Piche in August 1966.
Cormier was 4-5 for the 1991 Cardinals but impressed with his command, striking out 38 and issuing a mere eight walks. He appealed to Duquette, the newly appointed Expos general manager, whose mandate was “to create excitement about a team with meager prospects,” Michael Farber of the Montreal Gazette noted.
The Cardinals were in the market for Expos first baseman Andres Galarraga and Duquette, attempting his first trade, was willing to deal Galarraga for Cormier, whose heritage, Farber wrote, “made him more appealing than his stats.”
Cormier “could be a huge asset to the Expos, at least to get people in Montreal talking about the team,” The Sporting News observed.
The Expos’ interest in Cormier was big news in New Brunswick. “It was the talk of the town, let me tell you,” Cormier said to the Post-Dispatch. “People were talking about it all around.”
For the Cardinals, who had a shortage of left-handed starters, Cormier was “the one guy I didn’t want to trade,” manager Joe Torre said.
Cardinals general manager Dal Maxvill said, “I know Joe thinks the world of him. He’s a little bulldog out there.”
The Expos took pitcher Ken Hill from the Cardinals in exchange for Galarraga.
“We talked long and hard about Cormier,” Duquette said. “They told me they would not give up Cormier.”
Cormier said, “I definitely didn’t want to get traded. First of all, I like St. Louis. Second of all, playing in Montreal would be a lot of pressure. There is pressure now, but just imagine how much more there would be if I was pitching in Montreal.”
Highs and lows
In January 1992, Cormier got married. Three months later, he pitched in Canada for the first time as a major-leaguer, starting for the Cardinals at Montreal in the Expos’ home opener. Cormier’s mother, two brothers and a sister were among the 40,907 in attendance.
An error by shortstop Ozzie Smith led to two unearned runs and the Expos won, 3-2. Boxscore
In four seasons (1991-94), Cormier was 24-23 for the Cardinals, but teammate Todd Zeile told the Post-Dispatch, “Ask any of the catchers and they’ll tell you he had the best stuff on the staff.”
On April 9, 1995, the Cardinals traded Cormier and outfielder Mark Whiten to the Red Sox for third baseman Scott Cooper and pitcher Cory Bailey. The Cardinals tried to convince the Red Sox to take pitcher Tom Urbani instead of Cormier, but Duquette said no deal would be made without Cormier. “They were pretty adamant about it,” Torre said.
Duquette traded Cormier to the Expos in January 1996. He pitched a three-hit shutout against the Cardinals in April. Boxscore
After making one start in 1997, Cormier hurt his left elbow and had reconstructive surgery. He sat out the 1998 season, returned to the Red Sox and became a durable reliever. He was with the Phillies from 2001-2006. His best season was 2003 when he was 8-0 with a 1.70 ERA.
In July 2006, “the Phillies had a trade for Cormier worked out with the Cardinals, but that fell apart,” the Philadelphia Inquirer reported.
Instead, Cormier was dealt to the Reds and finished his playing career with them.
In 16 seasons in the majors, Cormier was 71-64, including 2-0 against the Cardinals.