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Ticket Refunds, Molina, and Tin-Foil Hats

How do ticket refunds, Molina’s recent comments, and a leaked plan for 2020 fit together? We dive deep into speculation that goes all the way to the Governor’s office!

JP Hill using images from secret sources (Google)

I’m supposed to be writing about jerseys this week. I’ll contribute to this week’s theme on Saturday, but Wednesday was just too interesting to let slide without comment. Two critical events happened yesterday that are subtly tied together and have some significance for the future of baseball league-wide and here in St. Louis.

The first concerns ticket sales:

Fans who spent hard-earned (and much needed) money on early-season tickets, season tickets, and ticket blocks are finally getting their money back. The Cardinals are refunding single-game tickets purchased for April and May. They are prorating ticket packs, which refunds the portion of the money spent on games played during the season’s first two months. Season ticket holders can receive credits or a full refund, whichever they choose.

How the Cardinals would handle ticket refunds for early season games has been a frequently asked question for weeks now and the common refrain from beat writers was that the Cards did not want to refund tickets until they were certain those games would not be played at all.

The conclusion here should be obvious.

These refunds signify that the Cardinals are finally ready to publicly admit that those games – and their revenue – are irretrievably lost.

It’s not news that games are going to be lost this season. We all knew that already.

The refunding of ticket sales, however, changes that from informed speculation into enacted reality. What triggered the Cards to refund games? And why did it happen this week?

Go grab your favorite tin-foil hat and break out the colored yarn. Corkboard your entire basement. Let’s start connecting seemingly small points of data into the massive, convoluted puzzle that is baseball in a pandemic.

On Monday, Missouri Governor Mike Parsons revealed the state’s plan to allow Missouri to re-open from the stay-at-home order. This order includes some social distancing restrictions, but pretty much allows any business in the state to operate. There was also no restriction placed on the size of public gatherings.

Missouri was not alone in this. Multiple states have already allowed shelter-in-place and stay-at-home orders to expire. Even in hotspots, like New York, there is a sentiment that baseball could be played at some point this summer.

Momentum is moving toward a return for baseball and my expectation is that return is going to happen very soon. Publicizing their refund policy for two months of games implies that the Cardinals have a clear understanding of what the season will now look like.

That means MLB has narrowed itself from 2-3 possible scenarios – the Arizona plan and the Grapefruit/Cactus League plan – to what I’ll call the “hometown” plan that features three divisions and limited regional travel.

Expect this plan to go from rumor to announced in something resembling its current leaked form within the next two weeks.

It’s also possible that this plan could include fans sooner than many believe. Missouri’s social distancing guidelines, effective May 4th, would allow for fans to be present at baseball games, so long as the Cardinals could provide safe social-distancing.

Take note that the Cardinals offered refunds for April and May games, but not for games in June. Does that mean there will be fans in June? Probably not. It does mean, though, that the Cardinals might believe it is possible for MLB to play June’s games, even if those games are rescheduled for October or later.

Or I’m overthinking this and we’re just too far from June for the Cards to offer refunds. Probably that.

We’ve already taken an announcement about ticket refunds to near crazy levels of speculation, but since I’ve already got this tin foil hat working and yarn strung all over my baseball, let’s go even deeper. Enter Yadier Molina.

League Championship Series - St Louis Cardinals v Washington Nationals - Game Four Photo by Patrick Smith/Getty Images

At the Winter Warm-Up in January, Molina stated his desire to continue playing beyond his current contract. He also said, with no qualification, that he would only play for the Cards and if that was not possible he would likely retire.

(You can hear his original comments here.)

Yesterday, ESPN reported that Yadi is walking back those comments. As lil_scooter93 covered in Wednesday’s Hunt and Peck, Molina is not ready to consider retirement. Instead, the certainty of lost games in 2020 has secured Molina’s desire to play for another two seasons beyond 2020.

Rumors circulated in Spring Training, before the onset of the virus, that Molina and the Cardinals were in discussion about a contract extension. No extension was agreed to. The virus happened, shutting those conversations down. Now the immediate future of baseball and its economic health are in question.

Why is Molina choosing to talk about his playing future right now?

It was just last week that I speculated on the potential payroll ramifications of the loss of ticket sales in 2019 and the global economic crisis – “Payroll in a Pandemic”. If you missed that one let me sum it up for you: a global economic collapse is bad for baseball.

In the Great Recession of the late 2000s, National League payrolls remained largely static. Among the three case studies I considered – the Cardinals, Cubs, and Dodgers – each club cut payroll by at least $10M at one point during that recession despite showing consistently high attendance levels.

The Cardinals and the rest of the league are staring at a new reality. Not only are economic projections at least as pessimistic as they were in 2007-2009, clubs are also looking at a 33% loss in ticket sale revenue at minimum. That number is optimistically going to end up closer to 67% losses of ticket revenue.

My guess – and it is just a guess – is that even though the Cardinals and Melvin Roman (Molina’s agent) tabled any conversations about an extension for the time being, they have remained in touch. The Cardinals have likely expressed their continued desire to retain Molina, while also acknowledging the unprecedented economic situation they are facing.

The Cardinals are going to cut payroll in 2021 just as Molina hits free agency. To do that, they can’t afford Molina at anything remotely close to this season’s $20M salary. Instead, my guess is the Cards would prefer for Molina to return at highly discounted “we’re in unprecedented economic crisis” salary levels and they won’t even consider extending him until after the season ends and the Cards have a better idea of their future operating budget. I’m thinking something in the $7M range, with playing time incentives.

I think the economics of baseball in 2021 are going to be that bad.

Molina and his agent are sharp. Yadi wants to play for the Cardinals – probably almost exclusively – but he’s also a proud player who understands his value on and off the field. Molina feels good. He wants to play. A short-season helps protect his body from wear. But he also wants to be respected. Sure, he would likely consider something less than his current rate, but he’s not going to play for less than what he feels he deserves.

With one phone call to an ESPN reporter – likely arranged by his agent (why else would writer Marly Rivera just check in with Molina without a tip?) — he bought back the leverage he had sold at the Winter Warm-Up. Our own @thestlcardsfan4 argued this in an extended Twitter conversation with KMOV’s Brenden Schaeffer (follow the thread for the comments):

Molina is saying to the Cardinals: “Sure, the economics of baseball are bad, but you aren’t going to get to pay me whatever you want and trust I’ll just retire if it’s not enough. You’re going to have to compete with the rest of the league for my services.”

The point here is that we are starting to see public reactions to some of the things that we have speculated about for weeks. Games are finally being canceled. Teams are officially losing ridiculous amounts of money. Players and potential free agents are starting to take steps to better position themselves to gain some measure of economic certainty. The game beyond the virus is already being played under the surface of the public’s eye and only the smallest hints of that game are floating to the surface where we can see it.

More is coming soon. Start frantically jotting notes in the margins of your hoarded collection of composition books. Keep that tin-foil hat on at all times. Hold onto your butts but don’t hold too tightly to baseball as you knew it. Or Cardinals baseball as you want it. What seems like wild speculation today could become reality within a few weeks. Everything about this game has already changed and we’re just now learning about it.