It’s been a great year for controversy. While it seemed like the biggest sports-related controversies we might hear about for a while were to be the controversies sweeping the NFL offseason, we now have a new story in the form of the Cardinals hacking scandal. In case you haven’t heard (it’s fairly recent news), the source of the controversy is that the St. Louis Cardinals are being investigated by the FBI due to accusations that they have hacked into the Houston Astros’ player database.
That means it’s time to put Deflategate on the back burners for a while and get ready for a whole new mess of opinionated commentary from all of our favorite sportscasters. As you might imagine, things are already getting fairly heated in the press. There’s going to be a lot of data to sort through as more information on the Cardinals hacking scandal is revealed, but for right now we’re going to give you a few facts (and more than a few opinions) that sum up the major issues being discussed right now.
But before we get started on the scandal itself, we should warn you….
Don’t Worry Too Much About the Fans
We’ve talked about aggressively zealous fans before, but the Cardinals are known for having the “best fans in baseball.” If you follow that link, you’ll see that this is mostly a press invention. A few writers and a couple of sportscasters used the phrase to describe Cardinals fans, first in 1992 and then quite a bit in 2000. Mark McGwire used the phrase as well, and a lot of it seems to stem from the belief that Cardinals fans respect the game enough to cheer for opposing teams when a stellar play is made. So how are the best fans in baseball reacting to the Cardinals hacking scandal?
Well, not great. That whole thing about respecting other teams? It might be true, but super-fan Derrick Driskill seems determined to drive their legacy of respect right into the ground. If you follow that link, you’ll see Driskill holding up a sign which reads: “If you can’t beat the Cardinals…call the FBI!” He looks pretty proud of it. And he’s not alone. That link also provides just a small taste of the reaction on Twitter, which has a number of St. Louis fans implying that news of the Cardinals hacking scandal only broke as a result of jealousy on Houston’s part.
That’s not to say that the arrogance and sarcasm are one-sided. People are bashing the Cardinals pretty hard as well. So much, in fact, that a New England Patriots fan actually wrote a guide for Cardinals fans on how to deal with the controversy. Some of his advice (such as “embrace the hate”) is questionable, but at least the fans are getting some support. After all, it’s outlandish to assume they’re all like Driskill. The internet is often ruled by the loudest voices, and that’s truer on Twitter than just about anywhere else. There are baseball fans on all sides who are able to recognize that this is an unfortunate situation, and does not reflect on the players or on the fan base as a whole.
That’s not to say that everyone sees it that way. As far as some people are concerned, the Cardinals hacking scandal is appropriate comeuppance for a fan base that some call self-righteous and others say is liked by no one. These are pretty unfair statements to make about the entirety of a team’s fan base. Although the amount of evidence SB Nation found to back up their claim in that second link is rather…unfortunate.
“Hack” Is Open to Interpretation
What exactly do you picture when you think of the Cardinals hacking scandal? Some shady character, hunched over a computer and typing in endless lines of code? Maybe someone sifting through one of those strange, CGI-powered, implausibly Tron-like databases that you see in movies like Swordfish. Well, stop. Because what you should be picturing is a couple of front-office execs from St. Louis taking advantage of shoddy password protection.
By the way, in case you didn’t notice, the link above is from a year ago. You might have missed this news when it first hit, because we didn’t have a culprit back then. But basically, all that happened is a few team officials from the Cardinals used an old password from former GM Jeff Luhnow to access “Ground Control,” the awesomely-named player database used by the Houston Astros. And when you consider that he left the Cardinals back in 2011 and the hack took place in 2014, it’s surprising that the officials in question even expected his old passwords to work. Although it at least led to the now-trending #AstrosPasswords, some of which are more clever than others.
But before you jump to the conclusion that Luhnow is solely to blame and that he committed some atrociously bungling act of stupidity by failing to change his password, remember that the St. Louis officials who committed the Cardinals hacking scandal weren’t exactly using their thinking caps either. In fact, USA Today posits that acts of internet espionage might happen all the time without our knowledge. The reason this one was caught so easily is that the officials in question chose to post the stolen data on Anonbin, a site which can be viewed by pretty much anyone. Anonbin now appears to be down, which is not the worst news in the world.
Deadspin, as is their wont to do, posted a fairly scathing article in which they criticized everyone involved in the Cardinals hacking scandal for their oversights. Not only did they point out the above issues, but also the facts that the St. Louis officials used their home computers for the hack, that Ground Control was ported from a database used by the Cardinals, and the lack of advanced security incorporated into the database itself.
The Astros Weren’t the Best Target
When a major sports team hacks into another franchise’s database, their choice of target doesn’t seem as if it should be one of the major problems with the controversy. And yet one central question continues to surface in discussion of the Cardinals hacking scandal: “Why the Astros?” And if you follow that link, you’ll find that most of the answers proposed thus far revolve around Jeff Luhnow. Some believe that the Cardinals were worried he might have brought proprietary information over to his new team, while others think that the officials who performed the hack were simply bitter.
The notion of committing a federal crime out of spite is worthy enough of criticism on its own, but the issue of proprietary information seems a bit more compelling. Or does it? According to Luhnow himself, it doesn’t take too long for information on players and trades to become dated. Also, it’s pretty much a given that Luhnow would take at least some information to Houston. Said information is what Luhnow refers to as “residual intellectual property” or, in layman’s terms, anything he can remember based on his time spent working with St. Louis. So it’s known that he technically had information on the Cardinals, but unlikely that he would have actually saved it to a hard drive and kept it on Houston’s proprietary database for three years.
In terms of making the Houston Astros a bad target, however, you really do need to consider the revenge allegations that we glossed over in the paragraph above. In the legal world, there’s this thing called “motive,” and when the information you’re stealing doesn’t really amount to much that would help you on the diamond, it’s safe to assume that the motive is personal. It’s a pretty bone-headed move when the risk outweighs the reward.
Finally, let’s say they had uncovered information that would help them on the diamond. They’d be uncovering that information on a team that for the better part of a decade has been referred to as the “Lastros” due to their consistent failures. And while they seem to be playing a lot better this year, that wasn’t the case back when the hack was performed. In other words, the Cardinals hacking scandal put front-office officials at risk for essentially no good reason. And if you’re wondering what kind of risk they’re really facing, well…let’s talk about that for a second.
Both the FBI and MLB Could Punish St. Louis
The Cardinals hacking scandal could lead to big punishments for St. Louis, and while it’s still technically under investigation, most have little doubt that they’re guilty. And at the conclusion of the FBI investigation, it will likely be found that they are in violation of the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act. Not necessarily the Cardinals, but at least the officials found guilty of breaching Ground Control. To put this in context, another violator of the CFAA was once sentenced to more than three decades in prison and slapped with a fine of $1 million.
So the perpetrators of the Cardinals hacking scandal could face some dire consequences, which makes sense given the fact that they committed a federal crime. The investigation will determine the extent, if any, to which the actual team is punished. But if they are found to have any involvement whatsoever (and possibly even if they aren’t), then this will likely take a toll on their reputation. But the legal consequences and the bad publicity aren’t the only problems they’re facing, since the league is following the investigation into this matter pretty closely.
Commissioner Rob Manfred is going to have his work cut out for him if the feds determine that the franchise orchestrated the hack. The MLB has never had to deal with a case quite like this one, which is being considered by many to constitute an act of corporate espionage. While the MLB is not a legal entity and is not theoretically required to conform to precedent, it would still help Manfred to have some prior knowledge regarding issues like this. Not that the MLB is new to unique cases, such as the 1989 gambling case involving Pete Rose of the Cincinnati Reds.
But there are some who think that Manfred and the MLB should take this opportunity to set a major enough precedent to deter future instances of hacking by major baseball franchises. Even one self-professed proponent of the Cardinal Way has written that anyone with any knowledge of or involvement in the Cardinals hacking scandal should receive severe sanctions. Of course, which members of the Cardinals organization should be punished is open to debate. The article linked above points out that any sanctions which punish the players would be decidedly unfair. And even the best MLB managers are not aware of every little thing that goes down in their front office. In short, Manfred is going to have some pretty big decisions to make.
This Isn’t As New As You Think
The last talking point we’d like to discuss in regard to the Cardinals hacking scandal is something that many press outlets have mentioned in passing, but it hasn’t really been the focus of any major discussions. While it may not have involved the internet or any sort of personal vendettas, a major franchise has potentially used subversive means of gaining an advantage in the past. For instance, in 1951, when the New York Giants faced off against the Brooklyn Dodgers, the Giants stole signs from the catchers so that the players at bat would know what to expect. It was a rudimentary system, watching the catchers with a telescope and then letting the bullpen know which signs they were flashing. But there have been similar allegations in the past, such as accusations that Bobby Valentine of the New York Mets had cameras set up to steal signs in 1997.
Speaking of cameras, you might remember the infamous Spygate. This early “gate” scandal involving the New England Patriots involved using sideline cameras to figure out defensive signals used by the New York Jets. This one might actually be the closest thing Manfred has to a precedent, although the MLB should certainly handle the Cardinals hacking scandal more seriously than the NFL handled Spygate. After all, Pats coach Bill Belichick had actually been caught employing cameramen multiple times prior to 2007, the year the scandal finally became more widely publicized.
And in America’s constant search for new “gate” controversies, headlines such as this one by the New York Post have already taken to referring to the Cardinals hacking scandal as “baseball’s Spygate.” This would make sense, given that the Pats issue was more recent than the sign-stealing scandals in baseball, although the accusations against Bobby Valentine seem to be a little more relevant to the current issue with the Cardinals. Again, none of these issues give Manfred anything decent to work with in terms of precedent. What they do establish, however, is that this sort of “espionage” is not especially unique, nor is it confined to the internet.
In a way, it’s almost surprising that it took so long for something like this to happen. Of course, for all we know, it already has. As was mentioned above, the officials responsible for the Cardinals hacking scandal might have gotten away with it if not for some rather elementary missteps. Hopefully, any precedent set by Manfred in dealing with them will establish a real deterrent, rather than simply inspiring the next franchise that wants to hack their opponents to do a better job of covering their tracks.