Of course, baseball has a hacking scandal

FILE - In this Feb. 18, 2013, file photo, Houston Astros general manager Jeff Luhnow, left, talks with players during a spring training baseball workout in Kissimmee, Fla. The analytical approach helped the St. Louis Cardinals with the World Series in 2011 and is starting to pay off for the first-place Houston Astros. And now the work of former baseball outsider Jeff Luhnow is at the center of a federal probe, with the FBI investigating members of his old team for stealing fresh secrets from a man who left for Houston after clashing with some old-school idealists in St. Louis.  (AP Photo/David J. Phillip, File)

FILE - In this Feb. 18, 2013, file photo, Houston Astros general manager Jeff Luhnow, left, talks with players during a spring training baseball workout in Kissimmee, Fla. The analytical approach helped the St. Louis Cardinals with the World Series in 2011 and is starting to pay off for the first-place Houston Astros. And now the work of former baseball outsider Jeff Luhnow is at the center of a federal probe, with the FBI investigating members of his old team for stealing fresh secrets from a man who left for Houston after clashing with some old-school idealists in St. Louis. (AP Photo/David J. Phillip, File)

This should be happening here, right? In any fill-in-the-blanks scenario that has a major league baseball team hacking into the computer database of a rival franchise, the info thief would have to be in the shadow of the Silicon Valley. Your culprit would be either the A’s, who helped give birth to advanced metrics via Billy Beane, or the Giants, who’ve won three World Series in five seasons with an elite IT system and various local tech firms and wizards in their power sphere.

“Moneyball” was created by stealing code.

Buster Posey is an elaborate product of pilfered analytics.

Madison Bumgarner was developed digitally in a tech lab.

Julian Assange is on Larry Baer’s payroll.

Is that what baseball has come to in the 21st century, an invasion of geekery far beyond what we already dreaded with Bill James, sabermetricians, Nate Silver blogs and all those damned acronyms — WAR, VORP, DRS, BABiP, xFIP and, my personal contribution, BARF — that clutter a beautiful game?

And do we readjust lyrics in the seventh inning? “So let’s root, root, root for the home team. If they don’t change passwords, it’s a shame.”

For now, Bay Area baseball fans can relax. The scandal is elsewhere, in middle America, where they don’t lie well enough to get away with wrongdoing. Though we have no idea yet if it’s an isolated episode or the beginnings of yet another full-blown, widespread baseball cheating scandal, the St. Louis Cardinals are targets of a federal law-enforcement investigation over allegations they hacked a computer system and stole trade secrets from their former scouting and player development director, Jeff Luhnow, after he joined the Houston Astros as general manager.

The immediate thought is how this storm, which could wind up with people doing jail time, damages a prestigious organization with a haughty philosophy known as “The Cardinal Way.” For decades, the Cardinals have sustained success through methods ingrained in high character and integrity, or so they’ve said, right down to a large handbook they dispense like Bibles to every prospect in their farm system. But now, a sports world long weary of deceit — and largely disgusted by the Spygate and Deflategate disgraces that have sullied the NFL dynasty of the New England Patriots — wonders if The Cardinal Way also involves corporate espionage.

Naturally, the franchise’s top executives are denying involvement and knowledge. Richard Nixon once did the same. Alex Rodriguez once did the same. “I still don’t know the reason for it,” Cardinals chairman William DeWitt Jr. said in a statement. “I can’t come up with a reason for it. It goes against everything we stand for. We don’t know who did what here.

“We’ve all been tainted. It’s a shame.”

But if the Cardinals have known about the FBI probe for months, why have DeWitt and general manager John Mozeliak not undertaken their own internal investigation? Were they hoping the matter went away, as Patriots owner Bob Kraft wrongly hoped in the fiasco over Tom Brady and deflated footballs? “You can imagine how shocked I was to learn that the FBI was investigating a potential breach … because it didn’t make any sense,” DeWitt said. “Those responsible will be held accountable, and we will continue what we feel is a great franchise.”

In the standings, as Baer and Giants baseball bosses Brian Sabean and Bobby Evans are well aware, the Cardinals have overcome injuries and offseason tragedy to assume their usual lofty position in the standings. Their 45-24 record is by far the best in the National League, and if the Giants want to reach the World Series again, they’ll likely again have to pass through St. Louis, which has hosted the NL championship series the last four years. We’ll assume the Giants have changed their passwords, knowing some of their own secrets went public in the scam. Seems they were keen two years ago in acquiring pitchers Bud Norris and/or Lucas Harrell from the Astros, but didn’t want to relinquish Brandon Belt and prospect Kyle Crick, among others. No one was supposed to know that.

The hack job exposed the info and saddled baseball with the last burden it needs in 2015: another lying-and-cheating scandal, which comes after a 20-year drama involving performance-enhancing drugs that badly eroded the public’s trust in the sport. Always at the forefront of deceit — whether gamesmanship-related (sign-stealing), a blatant breach of the rules (hitters using corked bats, pitchers putting illegal substances on the ball) or a historic rupture (steroids use involving the greatest players of a generation) — it stands to reason that baseball would be at the sleazy forefront of hijacking computerized information.

The sport is flush with money like never before.

And the sport, with its emphasis on data and numbers, is most conducive to gaining an advantage via hacking and exploiting sabermetric knowledge.

Luhnow is one of those geeks who bought “Moneyball,” loved it and used his educational background in economics and management to enter Major League Baseball and make a new-age difference. Through a friend’s family connection to DeWitt, Luhnow was hired in 2003 and eventually was promoted to a leading role in the franchise, algorithmic all the way in developing outstanding talent from within. In his time there, the Cardinals contended for pennants almost annually and won two World Series, a remarkable achievement in a middle market that lacks the local television riches of the Yankees and Dodgers.

“He really had his own little department,” DeWitt said in a question-and-answer session with media. “He did interface with the baseball ops people. It was a new initiative for the Cardinals. It was really a blank slate. We were starting from scratch … to see if we couldn’t be a leader in this field. It was looking at everything out there, it was not us trying to emulate Oakland or maybe what others were doing. At the very start, we wanted to do it as a Cardinal model.”

Which explains why the Astros, under new ownership that wanted to tear down and reboot the franchise, hired Luhnow and made him the baseball boss. The team owner, Jim Crane, grew up as a Cardinals fan in St. Louis and wanted to emulate the team with 11 World Series titles. It took a while, but as Beane has noticed most of this season — to the point he’s ready to dump Scott Kazmir, Ben Zobrist, Tyler Clippard and others in a pre-trade-deadline fire sale — Houston is atop the West with the American League’s best record. As he was accruing young talent, Luhnow apparently didn’t pay enough attention to security protocol. Because the FBI thinks the Redbirds hacked his extensive data base, known as Ground Control, which is such an egregious charge that the Stan Musial statue turned up its nose outside Busch Stadium. Luhnow first discovered the hack job last June, when he and the Astros alerted the FBI and MLB security.

If the Cardinals are nailed by the FBI, the onus will be on the new commissioner, Rob Manfred, to swing the hammer and not be as wishy-washy as his predecessor was through much of the PED scandal. We don’t need Bud Selig’s deflections and justifications. We need major suspensions, heavy fines, a possible vacating of the Cardinals’ playoff triumphs.

“It’s too early to speculate on what the facts will turn out to be and what action, if any, is necessary,” said Manfred, who has the law background that Selig lacked. “I really don’t recall another situation with an allegation of proprietary information being accessed or stolen. This is different than when we might investigate a drug case. When we’re running an investigation, I have access to all the facts in real time. That’s just not the case here. Because I don’t know exactly what the facts are …it really doesn’t make sense for me to speculate as to how serious a problem I have.

“Soon enough, we will have full information as to what went on, and I think you can rest assured that we will act appropriately at that point.”

In Oakland the other day as part of his 30-team tour — he says the abysmal A’s stadium situation absorbs too much of his time — Manfred insisted that MLB and its franchises aren’t vulnerable to more hacking. “We monitor, centrally, all unauthorized incursions into the IT systems in the industry,” he said. “We do that because, most of the time, you’re talking about somebody from outside the business, right?

“We had pretty good information on what goes on in that area, and we have no reason to believe that there’s ever been an incident like the one that is being — again, I want to be really careful with this — investigated.”

But no corporation, even one as large as MLB, is immune to such espionage. Ask Sony. As it is, Manfred had to cancel 65 million All-Star votes because the computer voting was lopsided toward Kansas City players. As it is, Manfred winced — as did Panda fans everywhere — when Pablo Sandoval was benched for one game last week by Red Sox manager John Farrell. His screwup: During a game, he pushed the “like” button for a woman’s photo on his Instagram account.

Those are misdeeds. Hacking into a competitor’s database is a serious federal crime. It’s our world today, sadly. Earlier this month, I was on a BART train when some goof took a photo of my phone — and a text conversation I was having — and sent it to a rogue website. The losers at the website published a fabricated conversation, making it an illegal act. Were the site not so meaningless and creepy, I’d pursue a lawsuit. I still might.

All of which should make us think deeply about society and privacy. Is this where sport and life are headed, where we constantly must have our heads on swivels, changing our passwords as often as our underwear and shielding our phones with covers? Don’t let the cybercrooks off easy, Rob Manfred. None of us should.

Jay Mariotti is sports director and lead sports columnist at the San Francisco Examiner. He can be reached at jmariotti@sfexaminer.com. Read his website at jaymariotti.com.
cheatinghackingHouston AstrosMLBSt. Louis Cardinals

If you find our journalism valuable and relevant, please consider joining our Examiner membership program.
Find out more at www.sfexaminer.com/join/

Just Posted

A nurse draws up a dose of the Moderna COVID-19 vaccine at the Mission neighborhood COVID-19 vaccine site on Monday, Feb. 1, 2021. (Kevin N. Hume/S.F. Examiner)
SF expands vaccine eligiblity, but appointments ‘limited’

San Francisco expanded eligibility for COVID-19 vaccinations Wednesday but appointments remain limited… Continue reading

The now-shuttered Cliff House restaurant overlooks Ocean Beach people at Ocean Beach on Tuesday, Feb. 23, 2021. (Sebastian Miño-Bucheli / Special to the S.F. Examiner)
The United Educators of San Francisco rallied in front of City Hall Saturday for a candlelight vigil after several days of contract negotiations. (Samantha Laurey/Special to SF Examiner)
Teachers call for outside mediator as contract talks over school schedule continue

Union remains at odds with SFUSD over hours students should be in the classroom

Lawrence Ferlinghetti (Paul Chinn/2000 S.F. Examiner)
Lawrence Ferlinghetti, poet and titan of the Beat era, dies at 101

Elaine Woo Los Angeles Times Lawrence Ferlinghetti, the San Francisco poet, publisher… Continue reading

Most Read