Raining on their morality parade.

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Cardinals' Holier-Than-Thou Image Gets Hacked

Kavitha A. Davidson is a former Bloomberg View columnist.
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If you needed any more proof that your beloved sports team is nothing more than a cold, calculating corporation, look no further than the St. Louis Cardinals.

The New York Times' Michael S. Schmidt reports that the FBI is investigating Cardinals officials for allegedly hacking the Houston Astros' internal network and getting access to trade discussions, proprietary statistics and scouting reports. Prosecutors have served subpoenas to both the Cardinals and Major League Baseball for electronic correspondence.

Despite immediate attempts by St. Louis fans to dismiss these offenses as "data mining," the attack as described is really much more serious. It's the first known case of corporate espionage involving a sports team hacking another. As NBC Sports' Craig Calcaterra notes, it could very well have been the rogue action of a lower-level employee and not necessarily part of an organization-wide conspiracy. But it also seems like a clear violation of the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act, which prohibits unauthorized access to computers and networks.

Some background: Before moving the to American League West, the Astros were divisional rivals with the Cardinals, playing in the National League Central from 1994 to 2012. In 2003, businessman Jeff Luhnow joined the Cardinals' executive staff as part of owner Bill DeWitt's push to bring more data and analytics to the team. Luhnow's lack of baseball experience raised some eyebrows among the more traditionalist corners of the front office, but his "Moneyball" approach worked: He was the architect of the Cardinals' widely heralded minor league system, which has paid off from the team's 2011 World Series victory to today; they currently have baseball's best record. Schmidt writes that during Luhnow's tenure, the Cardinals "built a computer network, called Redbird, to house all of their baseball operations information."

After the 2011 postseason, Luhnow left to become the general manager of the Astros, where a similar system was built. In August, Bloomberg Business did an extensive profile on Houston's big data project, which includes a proprietary player evaluation system called Ground Control designed with the help of a NASA engineer (presumably not named Major Tom). The system is reportedly among the most sophisticated of its kind, yielding data-driven insights that have been used in negotiating trades.

Last June, Deadspin reported that Ground Control had been hacked, with nearly a years' worth of internal documents leaked to Anonbin, a site for anonymous sharing of hacked information. Among the details revealed were the Astros pursuing a trade for Giancarlo Stanton and hilariously thinking they could somehow score Xander Bogaerts for Bud Norris.

According to Schmidt, investigators believe the Cardinals officials responsible for the attack were "vengeful front-office employees" targeting Luhnow, suspecting he had stolen trade secrets from the development of Redbird. Unlike the system itself, it appears the hacking of Ground Control was highly unsophisticated. Access to the network was reportedly gained from simply guessing off a list of passwords previously used by Luhnow and other former Cardinals officials now working for the Astros.

We'll wait as the investigation takes its course and the full extent of the hacking operation is uncovered. As we've seen in countless cheating scandals, most recently Deflategate, a low-level employee could face the brunt of the repercussions. It's also worth noting the influence DeWitt holds throughout the league -- he's the chairman of the MLB's Executive Council and was chairman of the selection committee that chose Commissioner Rob Manfred to replace Bud Selig.

In social media, you'll see the usual comments bemoaning that the federal government is wasting taxpayer dollars on something as frivolous as baseball -- mostly from Cardinals fans. But that's never stopped law enforcement before in coming down hard on MLB transgressions, not to mention the particular fervor with which the FBI pursues cybercrime. (Or, for that matter, FIFA.)

Of course, there's certain to be schadenfreude among non-Cardinals fans relishing that the team that pushes an image of the down-to-earth alternative to other big-money franchises is involved in something so sinister. As WNYC's Jim O'Grady put it, "This is the Republican sex scandal of the baseball world." He explained, "It's rife with hypocrisy. The Cardinals pose as wholesome, fundamentals-devoted Midwesterners but they're sleazy hackers."

There's certainly something to be said for a scandal like this taking down a self-righteous and, at times, delusional fanbase a peg or two -- even if the self-appointed morality of Cardinals fans was already undermined last year when a group of them hurled racist slurs at Ferguson protesters. And if you were up in arms over Deflategate, your outrage over this apparently much more egregious offense should rise accordingly.

The other way to look at it, however, is that cheating in baseball is as American as apple pie, from the Blacksox scandal to the 1951 Giants stealing signs to Gaylord Perry's Hall-of-Fame spitball to the steroid era. Hacking takes the cheating to a different level, but in a sense, this incident at least may prove that the Cardinals and their dimple-faced persona are no better than the rest of us -- the Midwestern Boys of Summer taking part in the All-American tradition of subverting America's Pastime.

To contact the author on this story:
Kavitha A. Davidson at kdavidson19@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor on this story:
Tobin Harshaw at tharshaw@bloomberg.net