The big sports story of the moment is the “hacking” of the Houston Astros’ computer systems/databases by folks employed by the St. Louis Cardinals. I put quotation marks around “hacking” here because if the reports out there are correct, this is not equivalent to what was done to break into the Sony databases. It seems as if the Astros’ GM – formerly with the Cardinals – had a favorite set of passwords that he used when with the Cards and he did not change them when he moved on to the Astros. Well, if you know someone’s passwords, it is not exactly “hacking” to get into the systems.
None of that is to try to justify what folks with the Cards allegedly did. If I find a key to your house in a parking lot and I wait until you are gone to let myself in, my entry into your house is not justified. I do not know if that analogy would hold water in the legal realm, but that seems to be a valid comparison for here.
Because the Cardinals have been a very good team for a very long time now, fans of opposing teams are experiencing a sense of schadenfreude. That is a fun sensation for a while; what is more important is to learn about what happened and to assess its implications and then move on to some kind of resolution.
I will refrain from schadenfreude for now until the legal folks decide whether they are going to charge anyone high up in the Cards’ organization with a crime in the matter. Unlike some other baseball cheating scandals, this one also seems to violate Federal Law – the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act of 1986 as amended. This seems to me to be a case of corporate espionage at the very least. For me the key question now is:
Who in the Cards’ organization knew what – and when did they know it?
It may not matter to the FBI and the DoJ whom they indict in this matter and what position those folks held in the Cards’ organization, but it matters to me. If the Cards’ GM knew this was going on and turned a blind eye, that makes this a whole lot worse. If an underling told him that (s)he thought (s)he could break into the Astros’ databases because (s)he thought (s)he had the passwords and he gave a nodding approval, that makes it even worse than a whole lot worse. From an overview perspective, there is a significant difference between a “rogue IT guy” doing this and “executive suite involvement.” Both situations are bad; one is outrageously bad.
Commissioner Rob Manfred seems to be doing the right thing here. He has said MLB is cooperating with the FBI in the investigation – I should hope so! – and he has not jumped the gun with regard to punishments. Moreover, he is not going to need to hire an investigator to weed out what happened. The FBI with subpoena power and needing to interrogate people who may choose to have their own legal representation will provide him with better information than a private investigation could. When the FBI and the DoJ are done, he can act. At the very minimum, there are going to be some folks banned from ever working in baseball again.
Taking a longer view, I find it interesting to try to place this hacking incident into the landscape of baseball scandals. In a sense, this is signal stealing on steroids which may be an apt description given baseball’s history with steroids. I am not a baseball historian by any measure, so consider what follows as something a high school kid might write for his junior thesis and not what a professor might write for a peer-reviewed journal.
Scandals that were worse than the current “hacking” investigation seems to be:
The Black Sox Mess in 1919: This involved fixing games in the World Series. Surely we can agree the current mess is nowhere near as bad as that.
The ’51 Giants stealing signs from their scoreboard: Stealing signs happens; denying that it does would be stupid. However, sign stealing at the level that the Giants practiced it was an affront to the game and surely affected a pennant race and a World Series participant. That was worse than this mess.
BALCO/Biogenesis: These illegal and corrupt activities affected the stats that form part of the foundation for baseball’s history. I cannot see how the current mess will come close to doing that.
Racism: After integration in the 40s, baseball still suffered outrageous racism in the form of death threats to Henry Aaron as he approached Babe Ruth’s home run record and in the form of Marge Schott as a franchise owner. The current mess is not good, but it is not nearly as pernicious as racism.
Scandals that were bad but not as bad as this one looks to be:
The 1980’s Free Agency Collusion: This was not cheating to win games; this was cheating to save money. It was a stupid idea and it was even more stupidly executed. In the end it did not save money; it cost owners $300+M.
Pete Rose: There is no evidence he bet on games involving his teams nor that he bet on games while he was playing. His jail sentence was for tax evasion which is not a baseball scandal.
Since this investigation is not yet finished – and often these Federal probes take a lot of time – there will be plenty of time for folks to ruminate on where this scandal fits into the landscape of scandals in the sports world outside baseball. Surely, someone will try to draw a comparison between this matter and “Deflategate”. There is an attractive reason to do so in that the Cards and the Pats are top-shelf teams/franchises and it might be fun to demonstrate their feet of clay. When you read that kind of thing, consider it nonsense. Even under the most nefarious scenario you might imagine for “Deflategate”, no one is in danger of going to jail based on the air pressure in a dozen footballs. Someone – some ones – here might do some time.
No matter how all of this shakes out, there is a baseline issue that Rob Manfred will have to deal with. Someone in the Cardinals’ organization cheated; there is no way to sugar-coat that. Someone used an improper – seemingly illegal – means to gain an advantage for the Cardinals that an opponent (the Astros in this case) did not have access to. I do not see any way around coming to the conclusion that cheating is involved here. Now, if the “integrity of the game” and the “best interests of baseball” mean anything other than bluster, Rob Manfred is going to have to take some definitive action(s) when we get to the bottom of all this.
But don’t get me wrong, I love sports………