Debating Cheapness

Jonathan Daniel

It is often contended, here and elsewhere, that Cubs owner Tom Ricketts is cheap. Join me as I venture into the world of high school debate to see if the charges hold true.

I debated in high school. Not very well, mind you. But I debated for a couple years, long enough to be inducted into the National Forensic League. (You received points toward qualification for losing. Yeah, I'm a member of the NFL.) This piece depends a bit on grasping the basics of high school debate. It's been a few years, but I will give you the needed basics.

Teams are a pair of high schoolers. One side is Pro (they want to change something), and the other side is Con (they generally think everything is cake and chips now, and any of that 'doing something different' is poppycock). One of the Pro pair reads an eight-minute (maximum) statement declaring what they want to do, and why it would be waaaaaay better than what we're doing now. After a bit of prep time, the opposition sends one of their two up to shoot BB holes in everything the first person said. After all four have had an eight-minute speaking time, they (in the same order) get four more minutes.

The judge decides the winner based on factual presentation, sources, and (largely) who debated better. Things have probably changed a bit, but check if your local school has a debate team. After a fashion, I learned quite a bit about research, logical conclusions, fallacies, and the like from debate -- almost all of it after I stopped debating in high school. (I guess I've never quit debating.)

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My younger brother makes a compelling point for which high school class is the most important. His call is Geometry (I hear you. "I hated that class."), as it is often the only class that requires a student to prove something. Most classes are memorization. What was Frank Robinson's OPS in 1964? In what year or years did Vida Blue win the Cy Young Award? How do you calculate WHIP? Only in Geometry were you asked to prove that Leo should have rested Randy Hundley more in 1968.

What? Your school didn't require you to know those? Poor you.

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Okay, cute. But what do Geometry and Debate Club have to do with whether Tom Ricketts is inexcusably cheap? That's a great question. I'm so glad you asked.

There are three things I have to discuss before we return to the debate scene. One is called the "Red Herring". Much of the reason some people don't like Ricketts as an owner have nothing to do with who he is. It has to do with who he isn't. Ricketts is not (never has been, and never will be) Mark Cuban. It isn't a direct correlation, but many Cubs fans wish that Cuban had been named the team's owner. That is a red herring.

While a union, corporation, or most civic organizations hold a general vote to determine the big kahuna, in MLB, the other owners decide who will be the new ownership group. Perhaps that's silly, but the 29 owners (with possible 'assistance' from the Commissioner) will determine who 'the new guy' will be. This is why Cuban will never own a major-league club. The other owners fear that he might make his team better. No point in letting him in. They'll vote for someone else until hell freezes over.

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The 'uncompared comparison' is one that drives me nuts. Imagine a television reviewer saying that "this show is the best new show on television this year." To make that statement with confidence and accuracy, what would be necessary? The reviewer would have to watch 'enough' episodes of all the new shows to get a proper feel for the writing, nuance, bit characters, humor, and the like. Not only on the main networks, but the ones you're not thinking of as well. The WB, TLC, USA, and by the way, all the foreign networks. He needs to be conversant in general dialects in Russia, China, all of Europe, South America, Africa. He would have to have a working knowledge of every new show that season in any country to make that statement. Welcome to how I listen to things.

When someone on this board says, "Tom Ricketts is cheap", here is what I want to know. He is cheap compared to whom? He certainly isn't cheap compared to me. I have the eight dollar a month cable package, and don't subscribe to the newspaper. His clothing on a casual day is usually more impressive than mine at a family get-together. He is cheap compared to the new Dodger ownership (Zack Greinke says "Hey."), but so are most parties than Paris Hilton attends.

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But is the Cubs owner cheap? I don't consider him tight with his finances, though most if not all effective ownership groups have a fairly steely eye on the cost-side of the ledger. He's spent money on a top-shelf Dominican Academy, has averaged eight figures in draft bonuses the last two years, after a 2007-11 average well below that. He spent enough to sign Jorge Soler, and was second on Yu Darvish, as well as among the top bidders on Yoenis Cespedes. He is allowing Theo Epstein to run the budgeting as he wishes, with no apparent meddling so far.

If you want me to consider the argument that ownership is now cheap, you have to accurately account for the above contentions, plus some others I might not be remembering on a Sunday morning. If you don't compare, contrast, and make citations, the debate judge won't vote you the winner.

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Back to the debate illustration. Imagine the topic is "Proposed: The DH rule in baseball should be changed." The Pro-side kid heads to the podium. He brilliantly states coherent arguments favoring the expansion of the DH to all games. The judge, a baseball traditionalist, is very much persuaded by the arguments. The judge would prefer going back to day games for the World Series, no DH ever, and no more than sixty seconds per ad break. However, on this day, these kids were all over it. Quoting Rob Neyer like a boss. A great Uecker story. Man, these kids are killing it.

They pound away at three issues. Fans like to watch players doing what they do best, nobody likes watching pitchers swing like they've never swung before, and the joy of seeing players that fans consider exciting, the city title looked like it would go the way of the DH. Judge weeps in his hanky. To win, the other side would have to sway the judge on the three points above. If they come out with "DH is horrible, man", the DH side would have to win. Their arguments were airtight.

Up comes the first debater on the Con side, faced with a Herculean challenge.

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"I agree one hundred percent with my competitor. Nobody likes watching Tommy Hanson hit. Or, more accurately, flail and miss. Every time. We all like watching the best against the best. Nothing beats the excitement of quality competition. Which is why I propose a counter to their plan. Not only should we have DH from every pro game from Rookie League to the World Series, we should also have courtesy runners for catchers and slow runners. What could beat Billy Hamilton and Tony Campana as courtesy runners when Cincinnati and Chicago receivers get on base? Nobody wants to watch Welington Castillo run the bases when it could instead be Campana."

The judge had no choice. Since the argument had been on getting pitchers out of the batters box, best against best, and more excitement in the game, he had to vote for the Con as the winner. Using the points that Pro had used as their base, the other side had espoused those views better. (I don't want courtesy runners either, but arguments are to be determined on the points made, not emotion.) When he got home, he watched some Willie Mays highlights, and felt much better.

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What does that silly exercise have to do with cheap owners? If a person were to try to persuade me to think the Cubs ownership is cheap, he shouldn't try to point to current salary markings or the 2012 winning percentage. He would have to dig deeper. He would have to show that in 2011, he left too many desirable draft selections unsigned. He would have to come up with a method for snagging Darvish, Cespedes, and Yasiel Puig, without knowing what numbers other teams were offering. He'd have to show how much better a real Dominican venue would be if he only knew how to spend. He'd have to show that Ricketts has grossly underspent on video equipment, scouts, amenities, and perhaps a bit on a few free agents upgrades that could have been made. And personal masseuses in A Ball and above.

Now, my eight minutes are about to start. Tom Ricketts has been painted as a guy who disregards amateur spending, technology, scouting; all the blood and guts things that make winning baseball possible. How do I respond.

"My opponent has raised some interesting points. I'm not sure I believe all of them, but I'll put that aside. Since my rival is claiming the owner now is cheap, what about the guy before him. While Sam Zell ran the big league payroll up just in time for his leadership to sell the team, he was nowhere internationally. Big-money foreign signings were an oddity, not the goal every time. The Dominican was more grotto hut than lavish Academy. Scouting's budget was the league's lowest. Office staff was similarly stretched. Minor league coordinators didn't have the dollars, or help, to squeeze the best from our prospects. As of now, the Cubs pipeline is being run like a Cuban-run franchise would be. (Drones on for six more minutes.)"

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You don't have to like the Cubs owner. It sounds, though, if you'd run into him at Wrigley or in Mesa, he'd be happy to listen to your concerns. They might well get passed along to the appropriate party. If you are going to say he is pocketing cash not being spent on the big league club, bring your A-Game. Have a credible citation. Or at least something from ESPN.

Yeah, losing 90+ games in a year is frustrating. I don't imaging Dale Sveum particularly relishes being a home underdog about half the time, either. If you're accusing Ricketts of being cheap, let me know who you're comparing him to. If it's Zell and the Tribune, they had to build to $130 million. And the team had no leeway to keep Mark DeRosa after that season.

I don't think I persuaded anyone today.That said, I think I made a decent case for current ownership spending nearly as much as the former group, though admittedly, not on the big league team yet. When you respond, and you know you will, keep on point. Have some links to back yourself up. Credit the valid points of others, even when you disagree. Most of all, remember, you don't know what agreement Ricketts and Epstein agreed to. Neither do I. While it's impossible to know if an uptick in spending will come, it's entirely impossible to know it won't.

Your eight minutes staaaaaaaaart... now.

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