Not long after the Cubs won the World Series in 2016, I started thinking about the guys who had been on the team in the years before the championship but were gone before the team finally won it all. The ones who had been there through the lean years of the first part of the 2010s but didn't get to be a part of ending The Curse of the Billy Goat.
A few years ago, I got to talk to a few of them for a story I wrote for the Sporting News to get their perspective on helping to build something that they didn't get to see completed. I wondered what it felt like to work hard toward something but not be a part of bringing it to the finish line. What it felt like not being a part of the celebration and recognition that comes with that.
There's a lot of that kind of thing that happens, unfortunately, but I think there's something about the value of work for its own sake and the value of appreciating the craft as much as the outcome.
The book A Confederacy of Dunces was published in 1980 and won the Pulitzer Prize for fiction in 1981. Its author, John Kennedy Toole, died in 1969. His mother, Thelma, was the person responsible for getting it published after he died at 31. He pitched it while he was alive and nearly got it published, but the book was ultimately rejected, to his deep disappointment.
The story of Toole's life is a sad one. His book is one of the best southern novels ever written, but he didn't get to see it published.
There's also Rick Renteria, the Cubs manager who was fired to make room for Joe Maddon, who led the Cubs to a championship two years later. If that wasn't enough, Renteria was just fired from the White Sox just as the team reached the playoffs for the first time in twelve years. In both cases, he played an integral role in steering those teams to success, but -- in the case of the Cubs -- didn't get to see that work come to fruition, and in the case of the White Sox, will likely be in the same boat again soon.
That kind of experience would drive a person crazy if there wasn't at least some amount of appreciation for the craft of what he was doing.
I heard in an interview recently that Julian Van Winkle is currently distilling bourbon that he won't live to see taken out of the barrel and put into a bottle. But that obviously doesn't mean that he is any less invested in this work than he was in the work that he did get to see reach the bottle. His concern is with the craft and with the legacy he is leaving for his children and grandchildren, and that is enough reward.
That's a part of why the former Cubs players I interviewed didn't express bitterness about their circumstances. It's why Renteria has been extraordinarily gracious through losing his job at the cusp of a team's greatness twice now. It's a part of why Toole's story is such a sad one. There is no guarantee that we'll see the fruit of our labor let alone get any recognition for it.
But when the point is the craft, the joy in the process of doing or making, that doesn't matter as much. The players I spoke with understood the world of professional baseball and that they weren't assured of staying with a team beyond a certain point. Renteria knows the same reality. Van Winkle knows what he's investing in is a future the next generations of his family can enjoy. Toole's circumstances were a little different, but while he was frustrated that his novel wasn't getting picked up, he must have been missing the fact that he was one of the most beloved teachers at St. Mary's Dominican College while he was trying to get Dunces published.
The best sense of contentment and satisfaction won't come from doing things for the sake of the recognition that we might get or the chance to be rewarded. It comes instead from learning to love the craft of our work, whatever it is, and doing our best to do what we do well for its own sake.