Bill Belichick might be quite upset to hear that a new sports franchise has allegedly taken cheating to the next level. The FBI is investigating baseball’s St. Louis Cardinals for allegedly hacking into a rival team, the Houston Astros’ information database, stealing important information about players and others involved in the organization. Although sign-stealing and other forms of “gamesmanship” have long been a part of baseball lore, this is the first noted cybersecurity breach in any American professional sports league. The Houston FBI office is handling the case which has already sent shockwaves through the sport. Although the agency declined to name specific individuals involved in the hack, signs point to it being conducted in retaliation against former Cardinal executive and current Astros general manager, Jeff Luhnow, who left the team following its most recent World Series title in 2011. Although quite successful with the Cardinals, Luhnow had an acrimonious relationship with some in the team’s front office. The FBI acknowledged that the investigation has progressed to the point that they have served subpoenas to multiple members of the Cardinals’ front office as well as Major League Baseball’s office and commissioner, Rob Manfred.
According to FBI officials, the hack was not very sophisticated and not likely conducted by a skilled professional. While with the Cardinals, Luhnow valued the increasing trend toward “moneyball,” using complex statistical formulas to maximize team effectiveness, especially under budget constraints. Luhnow developed a complex database called “Redbird” to hold and analyze scouting reports, player information, as well as other operational information. When he left to join the Astros, Luhnow created a similar system for the franchise, called “Ground Control.” When Luhnow left the Cardinals, he took several other members of the front-office with him as well to Houston. Officials believe that the alleged hackers obtained old passwords of Luhnow and the former Cardinals executives from the team’s archives to hack into Houston’s system in 2013. According to one unnamed source familiar with the investigation, the FBI believes that the hack occurred at a house near the Cardinal’s spring-training facility in Jupiter, Florida. The Astros called the FBI last year after information involving confidential trade proposals stored in their database were leaked anonymously online. Although Houston expected the leak to stem from a rogue hacker, further investigation by the FBI pinpointed the source to be coming from the Florida location. The fact that several executives shared the home during spring-training has complicated the FBI’s investigation, according to the source.
From a baseball standpoint, as many pundits have already noted in rapid reactions, this case borders between hilarious and ridiculous. Although the teams had been division rivals in the National League from 1994 until Houston switched to the American League in 2012, the two franchises histories could not be more different. St. Louis may be the most baseball-crazy city in the country, and is one of the top-drawing franchises and the team’s broadcasts are among the most highly-viewed in all of baseball, despite being an average-sized market. The Cardinals have won 11 World Series, more than any other team besides the New York Yankees, and have been arguably the most successful franchise of the 21st Century, winning two of four World Series appearances. Houston on the other hand, has been the worst team of the past decade by a considerable amount, although Luhnow has helped to turn the team around this year. Additionally, the Cardinals have long been regarded as one of the most traditionally-based and well-respected franchises in baseball. Houston, a team that is less than 50 years old has made one World Series in 2005, failing to win a game, and has such a nondescript tradition that it eagerly jumped on the chance to switch leagues. The Cardinals have the best record in baseball so far this season, however this year the Astros are sitting atop their division in the American League. It is quite possible that the two teams could meet in the World Series. The FBI alleges that the cyber-intrusion occurred in 2013, long before the Astros made their dramatic turnaround, stuck in record-setting streak of 100-loss seasons. Many find it quite laughable that the Cardinals would have tried to glean insight from such a moribund franchise at the time.
On a more serious note, the breach could spell serious trouble for both the franchise and the league. Although the Cardinals are held in high-regard in baseball and other sports circles, it should be noted that another successful professional sports team, the NFL’s New England Patriots and Belichick’s legacy will likely be forever tarnished due to cheating. The Patriots have been severely sanctioned by the NFL twice in the past decade for cheating, first for filming rivals’ practices which is against the rules, and last year, when they were punished by the league for intentionally deflating footballs below the leagues pressure requirements. If the FBI finds the allegations to be true, it will also not be the first time that the Cardinal’s have faced controversy in regards to cheating. The 1998 race for the home run record between Cardinal Mark McGwire, and Cub Sammy Sosa became marred in the years to follow after several investigations presented evidence of a league-wide problem of steroid abuse. The pair became the poster-children for the steroid epidemic, especially McGwire, which was brought to light after McGwire’s former teammate and iconic snitch, Jose Canseco wrote a tell-all book regarding steroid abuse. It has now become widely accepted that Canseco, and subsequently McGwire were instrumental in starting the steroid epidemic while playing for Hall of Fame manager and Cardinal legend, Tony Larussa in the late 1980s when Larussa was the manger for the Oakland Athletics. ESPN as well as other sources have noted Larussa’s presence and heated denials of any wrongdoing despite many to question how he could have not known. Larussa, by the way, is also a lawyer and considered one of the sharpest minds the game has ever seen. In addition to possible criminal charges and the likely loss of jobs, it could possibly forever soil the iconic franchise. As one Major League scout says, referring to the legendary beer magnate and former Cardinals owner, “Gussie Busch must be rolling over in his grave.”
ESPN/AP – Jerry Crasnick
New York Times – Michael S. Schmidt
Yahoo News – Jeff Passan