All these years later, that's how the St. Louis Cardinals feel about Wainwright now as he prepares to begin his ninth season. He's coming off a season in which he pitched almost as well as anyone in baseball, leading the Majors in innings (241 2/3) and tied with Jordan Zimmermann for the second-most victories (19).
Wainwright did just what the Cardinals hoped after they signed him to a five-year, $97.5 million extension in Spring Training. In ways large and small, he's a role model for what the Cards -- and all of Major League Baseball -- would want every player to be.
Now with Chris Carpenter's retirement from the Cardinals, Wainwright is the leader of a rotation with an assortment of gifted young guys stacked up behind him. He has Carpenter's old spring locker for the second straight year, which is symbolic of a larger role with the organization. That's one of the things they mean by "The Cardinal Way".
"It was something we were vocal about," Cards manager Mike Matheny said. "'This is your staff now. We need you to run with it.' Even though he'd been doing it for a couple of years when we still had Carp. It's nothing new. Adam is going to have to be the pillar. That's something he thrives on. He loves leading by serving guys, driving 'em, pushing 'em, not afraid to call 'em out."
Behind Wainwright on the Cardinals' depth chart are Michael Wacha (22), Lance Lynn (26), Shelby Miller (23) and Jaime Garcia (27). And there are more power arms behind those four, including Joe Kelly (25) and Carlos Martinez (22).
Lost in all of this is that Wainwright is still only 32, still at the top of his game. He's a two-time All-Star who finished second in National League Cy Young Award balloting last season.
"He's our leader," Wacha said. "He's here before anyone else getting his work done. We're lucky to have a guy like him to learn from."
And there's this from Lynn: "He's just so consistent. It's the way he goes about his business. It's how he prepares. He's so consistent in everything he does -- a total pro. You can learn an awful lot by watching how he does things."
Wainwright said he considers the transition a natural one as the Cards have summoned so many terrific arms from their Minor League system.
"It is dazzling. That's a good word for it," Wainwright said of the pitching talent. "Why do you think I signed an extension here? I saw these young bucks coming. These guys are throwing sinkers at 96 mph. Martinez is throwing 98-mph sinkers for the whole game. [Closer Trevor Rosenthal] is throwing the ball 100. All our starters are throwing the ball 94-95 consistently. But they have great offspeed [pitches] and poise to go along with it. It's a very, very talented group."
As for the leadership component, Wainwright said, "I just feel like it's something that's happened naturally. I have more experience than most of these guys. More than almost all these guys. It's just something I really like. I remember being in their shoes and asking questions of the older guys. I've taken a lot of different opinions and knowledge from a lot of different players, especially Carp and some other guys. I can pass that on if they want to hear it."
Last season was a personally satisfying one for Wainwright on many levels. First, he was fully recovered from Tommy John surgery that sidelined him the entire 2011 season and limited him at times in '12. That he led the NL in starts (34), complete games (five) and shutouts (two) in 2013 was a tribute to the surgery and to his commitment to the hours of rehabilitation work that followed.
"My arm felt great," Wainwright said. "There were still some things I was working on that I used to do a little bit better. Some things now I do better than I used to. It's going to be a cool spring for me to to really get everything mixed back in, sinking the ball, cutting the ball."
Before Wainwright signed that extension last spring, he considered whether he might be happier someplace else. Like most players who have the opportunity to play in St. Louis, he understood how lucky he was.
"One thing I weighed heavily when I was looking at signing an extension was the guys that had left [the Cardinals]," Wainwright said. "When they went to play somewhere else, they'd call and say, 'You've got it so good there. Don't ever leave there. It's the best place to play.' Old players and young players said the same thing. We are so blessed to be in this organization. We have a chance to win every year. Our fan base is incredible. It's a great baseball town."
Last season was one that included the Cardinals winning their 19th NL pennant and losing a six-game World Series to the Red Sox. Having been around for two championships, the sting of losing a World Series is still fresh.
"I don't know if you ever get over that fully," Wainwright said. "You learn from it. You take the experiences you've had, and you learn from 'em. We've been on the winning side of that, so we know what it feels like on the other side. It's a reminder that it's really hard to win. You have to play flawless baseball for a month straight. But these are experiences we'll share for the rest of our lives."