JUPITER, Fla. — Adam Wainwright's Cardinals Hall of Fame jacket has been waiting for him for a while now. The minute he walks off the field, he'll be canonized as an all-time St. Louis great.
For a few years, it looked like that day was imminent. Wainwright's injury struggles hindered his effectiveness when he was on the field, and ended up forcing him off of it.
That's when the doubters started to get loud. And it wasn't just online. They would say it right to the man himself.
"People told me, they'd tell me to my face. Which was pretty awesome... They would say, 'Thanks for the good years. We appreciate it'. And I had on many occasions people tell me that they didn't want me to continue playing baseball, but they wanted me to continue my coaching career," Wainwright said at spring training in Jupiter. "And when you're hurt you start kind of listening to that, but when I started coming out of being hurt it was easier for me to use that as fuel to help push me to where I wanted to be."
That fuel helped Wainwright put together his best full season since 2014. The veteran started at least 30 games for the first time since 2016 and had the second most wins on the team. He also was stellar in two postseason starts, giving up just three runs in 16.2 innings.
So, did he relish proving everyone wrong last season?
"I wouldn't say that. Had it been the year prior when everyone completely gave up on me right away. And I earned that, from pitching hurt. I could've just shut it down, but I really tried to get the job done. They were paying me a lot of money to get the job done, and I felt like I owed it to them. Last year, I had a better mindset with it," Wainwright said. "I had a lot more peace about what had happened before and coming out of that I knew the expectations were low, and they should have been. I was hurt for two straight seasons for the most part. And when you set that mark it's kind of hard to get that out of people's minds. So, I had to re-earn it."
For Wainwright, it was never a question if he could get back to form. It was always a matter of health.
"Coming into camp with a completely healthy offseason again and coming off a season where I felt better as I went... It was really unexpected honestly to go into a season feeling pretty good, much better than I had the previous two seasons, but then all the sudden, as the season went on, my health and my pitching ability sort of got better and better. I started having a lot more confidence on the mound knowing I'm healthy," Wainwright said.
After such an impressive postseason last year, it was a tantalizing thought to envision Wainwright riding out into the sunset still on the top of his game. There was just something missing though that wouldn't have made the ending as sweet as the veteran wanted it to be.
"We didn't win the World Series. That could've ended a lot better for me. Had we gone out and won the World Series and I was the MVP, it might've crossed my mind," Wainwright said. "But then again, I was just getting back healthy. I was just getting back confident again. I don't think I would've walked away. I would've seen if we could've done it again. If back to back was possible. I still have the competitive juices inside me flowing. I still have the urge to go out and win, and I'm still having so much fun playing baseball."
"When it stops being fun, or if I get hurt again, I'll quit," Wainwright added.
2020 certainly has the outlook of being a fun one for the Cardinals rotation. With Jack Flaherty, Dakota Hudson, Carlos Martinez and Miles Mikolas (that is, if his injury isn't too serious) joining Wainwright, the Cardinals could boast one of the best staffs in the National League.
On a Cardinals team built on defense and pitching, another year of the Adam Wainwright revival tour is going to be crucial if they hope to raise another World Series trophy.