By Jordan Kobritz
If it can happen to retailers like K-Mart, Target and Home Depot, and even the U.S. government, perhaps we shouldn’t be surprised that it happened to the Houston Astros. But in this case, the perpetrators weren’t a criminal element in Eastern Europe or the Chinese government but apparently employees of another MLB team, the St. Louis Cardinals.
In what is the first known case—security experts believe it has likely happened before—of computer espionage in professional sports, the FBI is investigating several Cardinals’ employees for allegedly hacking into the Astros’ computer system. The obvious questions are which employees are responsible and what was the purpose of the nefarious activity? Perhaps an answer to the first question will shed light on the second. What we know for now is that there is animosity tinged with jealousy between the two organizations.
In December, 2011, the Astros hired Jeff Luhnow, former Cardinals director of scouting and player development, to be their general manager. Luhnow had been a controversial and polarizing figure with the Cardinals since the day he was hired in 2003. With no prior baseball experience, he relied primarily on sabermetrics—the use of statistical analysis – in evaluating players. That approach angered longtime scouts and others in the organization that preferred a more traditional approach to scouting and player development. While the conflict between the new and old ways is not unique to the Cardinals, unlike other organizations the discord played out publicly.
Luhnow took several Cardinals’ employees with him to Houston and immediately announced a new dawn in baseball where statistics would be used exclusively to build a contending team. The effort received wide publicity from publications in and out of sports, which further riled the old guard. Initially, the results were decidedly mixed, the club hitting on a number of draftees and trades and missing on others. But Luhnow and his lieutenants stuck with the plan and their commitment has been rewarded. This year the young Astros have had a breakout season, leading the American League West Division by 4 ½ games despite having the lowest team payroll in MLB, $70 million.
The Astros’ network that was hacked contained internal discussions about trades, statistics, scouting reports and player personnel information, some of which has since been posted online. Such information could be used to embarrass and/or wreak havoc on the Astros and Luhnow personally. It could also be used to evaluate players, which would aid in determining which players to draft or pursue in trades, and how much to pay them.
Cardinals’ owner Bill DeWitt Jr. and general manager John Mozeliak appear to be off the hook as suspects in the investigation. Both men expressed surprise and regret that Cardinals’ employees will apparently be implicated in the scheme and have apologized to Luhnow and the Astros organization.
What discipline the Cardinals’ employees and the organization may face is purely speculative at this point. Criminal action may await the perpetrators. It’s also safe to say they should be touching up their resumes. The more intriguing question is what penalties the Cardinals may face from MLB. The case is unprecedented in MLB history with no established penalties, unlike performance enhancing drugs and gambling. Furthermore, DeWitt is perhaps the most respected owner in MLB. He chaired the search committee that unanimously recommended new Commissioner Rob Manfred for the position. Manfred would obviously be reluctant to come down hard on the Cardinals.
In addition, St Louis is a model franchise by any standard of measurement, both on and off the field. They don’t have the same baggage, say, as the NFL’s Patriots when it comes to operating up to – and at times over – the line. But some disciplinary action should be expected. It behooves Manfred to punish the Cardinals in a meaningful way if for no other reason than to discourage any future cases of computer espionage.
Under the MLB constitution, Manfred could use the “best interests of baseball” clause to fine the Cardinals up to $2 million and/or take “other actions” he may deem appropriate.
In the information age, hacking a rival’s computer system could prove much more valuable than any advantage provided by a deflated football. You can be sure that the shock waves generated by this incident reverberated in every front office in professional sports.
(Jordan Kobritz is a former attorney, CPA, and Minor League Baseball team owner. He is a Professor in the Sport Management Department at SUNY Cortland and maintains the blog: http://sportsbeyondthelines.com Jordan can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.)