If there was any doubt before as to who is considered the greatest athlete in the history of the Community College of Rhode Island, the answer was made very clear on Saturday.
In a ceremony in front of the entire CCRI baseball team and staff, the school’s administrators and friends and family, former major league pitcher and CCRI great Rheal Cormier had his No. 20 retired, making him the first athlete in any sport at CCRI to receive that honor.
Current CCRI pitcher Jacob Ciolfi, who wears No. 20 this season, will be the last Knights player to ever wear the number.
It was an emotional ceremony, in which the speakers ranged from CCRI president Ray Di Pasquale to Cormier’s former coach at the school, Art Pontarelli, to Cormier himself.
It was the first time Cormier had been back to the campus since he left Rhode Island after graduating in 1988.
“It’s great,” Cormier said after the ceremony. “It’s great to come back. I hadn’t been here since I left in ’88. It was fun yesterday when I walked on the field for the first time since then, and I ended up meeting some of the players and coach Kenny [Hopkins] and his staff.”
There were three jerseys framed, one of which went to Cormier, while the other two will be displayed in CCRI’s Lincoln and Warwick campuses.
The school also unveiled a banner that it plans to hang on the center field fence at the baseball field where the team currently plays and Cormier used to pitch 24 years ago.
Cormier came to CCRI from New Brunswick, Canada, where he was established as one of the top baseball prospects in the country coming out of high school.
He was set to sign a deal with the Montreal Expos, but after not performing up to his peak level at a tryout with the team, he was only offered a low-level minor league contract.
Since he had already turned down offers from such colleges as Oklahoma and Georgia Tech, his options suddenly were limited.
But Cormier knew Pontarelli from clinics that Pontarelli had run in Canada over the summer.
“At the time, my only other option if I wasn’t going to sign was, well Arthur called me and said, ‘You can always come to this school, and that way you can have the chance to get drafted yearly,’” Cormier said. “When he called I decided to come, and that’s when it all started.’”
Cormier enrolled at CCRI, along with his brother Don, soon afterwards.
Nobody, though, knew just how special it would turn out.
The left-handed Cormier pitched two seasons for CCRI, and was named a Junior College First-Team All-American both years.
He was the centerpiece for the CCRI team that finished in third place at the Junior College World Series in 1988, and he was selected to the All Junior College World Series team.
By the time he left the school, he was – and still is – the career record holder for wins, with 19, innings pitched, with 168, earned run average, with a 1.13, and strikeouts, with 226. He’s also the single season record holder in starts, with 15, wins, with 12, innings pitched, with 96 and strikeouts, with 147.
He graduated CCRI with a 19-1 career record.
During his freshman year with the Knights, he also developed the pitch that would define his 16-year Major League career – the split finger fastball.
“Dan Kennedy, my catcher, he was just there with the pads and the mask,” Cormier said. “Art told him, he said, ‘You need to go get the chest protector, because we’re working on this pitch.’ God knows where it’s going to go. I threw the first couple ones and I kind of bounced it right in front of him. I threw some good ones, some bad ones, but it’s a pitch that you have to keep repeating because you have to be able to throw it when you want to, where you want to.
“It took time, but I used it that year, and the next year and it got better and better. It got sharper, and it ended up becoming my out-pitch basically my whole time in the big leagues.”
Cormier’s success at CCRI, and pedigree from his years prior in Canada, let to him being drafted in the sixth round of the Major League Baseball draft by the St. Louis Cardinals in 1988.
From there, it was a three-year journey before he finally made it to the top.
“There’s only a very small percentage of people that make it, and that’s what tough,” Cormier said. “Nothing says that if you’re a great player when you’re 12, 13, 14 years old that you’re going to make it someday. Yeah, you dream about it. But it really started hitting me in Triple-A, when I was one step away, that I had my foot in the door.”
Finally, on August 13, 1991, Cormier got the call that he had been promoted. He made his Major League debut for the Cardinals on the 15th.
That became the springboard for a career that lasted 16 seasons in the major leagues. Cormier pitched for five different teams – St. Louis, Boston, Montreal, Philadelphia and Cincinnati – and made 683 total appearances. That number is second all-time for Canadian pitchers behind the 841 appearances made by Paul Quantrill.
When Cormier retired from the majors in 2007, he did so with 71 career wins, a 4.03 ERA and 760 strikeouts in 1,221 innings pitched. In 2003, perhaps his best season, he went 8-0 with a 1.70 ERA for the Phillies.
He also twice pitched in the postseason, in 1995 and 1999 with the Red Sox, where he appeared in eight games and had a 1.08 ERA.
Cormier has also represented Canada in the 1987 Pan Am Games, the 1988 and 2008 Olympics and the 2006 World Baseball Classic.
On June 23, Cormier will be inducted in the Canadian Sports Hall of Fame in St. Mary’s, Ontario.
And on Saturday, a day that Di Pasquale called “an extraordinary day for the Community College of Rhode Island,” Cormier returned to the place where his career got off the ground.
“The whole time I always felt proud of where I came from school,” Cormier said. “I carried that with pride the whole time.”