Cormier, Reitsma seek to close out careers with Olympic glory
To Rheal Cormier, pitching at the Beijing Olympics is a chance to close out his career the way it started, while for Chris Reitsma, it's an opportunity to leave the game on his own terms.
Forced from the big-leagues before their time because of injuries, the two veterans will anchor Canada's bullpen at the Summer Games. Neither has many bullets remaining in their troubled arms, and both want to squeeze out whatever's left while wearing the Maple Leaf.
"I played 20 years ago (in Seoul, when baseball was a demonstration sport), I had a great time then," says Cormier, the 41-year-old from Shediac, N.B. "This will be great because I started my career with the Olympics and I feel like this would a great end for it."
"I've had five elbow surgeries so it's obviously not a new elbow anymore," says Reitsma, the 30-year-old Calgarian, "but it's definitely good enough for one last kick at the can here at the Olympics. I had seven years in the big-leagues and I feel very blessed to have played that long.
"This is pretty cool to be able to say I went to the Olympics as well."
While the rigours of an 162-game big-league season are too much for them now, dialing things up for a 10-day tournament is another matter. At the international level, both should still have plenty to offer.
Reitsma was a reliable late-inning reliever for several seasons with the Cincinnati Reds and Atlanta Braves before his elbow gave out for the final time last August. An attempted comeback with the Seattle Mariners this spring fell short, although the team was impressed enough to offer him a chance to keep pitching in the minors.
Rather than trying to rebuild his career, he decided enough was enough, got in his car and drove from Peoria, Ariz., back to Calgary thinking he was through with baseball.
"When I decided to hang them up from professional baseball, I was driving home and I wasn't even thinking about the Olympics," he says. "Then when Greg Hamilton (Baseball Canada's director of national teams) called to ask if I was interested, I couldn't resist."
Reitsma kept working out over the summer and was preparing to pitch as a starter until a month ago, when he tore a pectoral muscle. That put an end to any thoughts of putting him in the rotation, leaving him to be a weapon out of the bullpen.
"I was actually built up to throw five, six, seven innings by now," he says. "But I had to take some time off (after the injury), it set me back a lot and now I'll be a one or two inning guy again. My body wouldn't allow me to do more."
The story for Cormier is similar.
One of the most reliable situational lefties in the majors for nearly a decade with the Montreal Expos, Boston Red Sox, Philadelphia Phillies and Cincinnati, Cormier had some shoulder issues last spring and quickly fell of the rails.
The Reds released him last May, he signed with Atlanta shortly after but, while pitching for their triple-A team, he found that the pain was too much to pitch through. Cormier took the rest of the summer off, rehabbed and tried to catch on with another big-league club this past spring.
There were no takers, however, and that's when he jumped at Hamilton's offer of another trip to the Olympics. To get himself ready, he spent five weeks with the Moncton Mets of the Brunswick Senior Baseball League, a team he played for the early 1980s.
"My whole focus was to get my arm in shape," says Cormier. "I know I can pitch. I'm only a year away from being out of the big-leagues. My whole thing, when I talked to Greg, was to get my innings where I could get my arm strong and keep it there, and I feel it's where it was before."
A promise that he would pitch at least once in each of the other four ballparks in the loop and not throw more than two innings in any outing had to be made before he was allowed to join the Mets.
The experience ended up resonating with him, going back to his roots as a young player trying to make the jump to the majors. He hopes to one day run a baseball academy in New Brunswick.
"It was great, actually more than I thought it was going to end up being," he said of the five-game stint with the Mets. "It was a great experience. I'm glad I did it. I got a chance to see a lot of people that I probably hadn't seen in 20-some years, plus the fans got a chance to see me live pitching instead of watching me on TV.
"And it was a good way to give back to the community, to the kids, and try to encourage them to keep following their dreams and to never give up."
Reitsma is fairly certain his dream will be coming to an end after the Beijing Games, although Cormier isn't ready to give in to retirement just yet. He won't rule out suiting up for Canada again at the World Baseball Classic next spring, or perhaps even a final go at the majors.
"If opportunities do arise after the Olympics, I would consider it," he says. "At the same time, I'm really content with where my career has ended up. But the door is always open. I feel like I still have something left in me."