You can’t buy love. And you cannot buy a reputation. Not with more than a century of success and one of the largest fan bases in Major League Baseball. On the field, the 2015 St. Louis Cardinals are having a typically superb season, currently sporting the best record in the sport (43-21). But then Tuesday, the New York Times broke a story that the Cardinals’ front office is being investigated for hacking into the Houston Astros’ computer system, a database that includes scouting reports, personnel evaluations, value analytics, and trade possibilities. In other words, the Cardinals are accused of tapping into a competitor’s brainpower.
This would be corporate espionage, of course, a federal crime. And it would be — far and away — the most damaging bruise on the reputation of a franchise that, since its inception in 1892, has been the preeminent operation in the National League, and second only to the New York Yankees in all of baseball. But 11 world championships and more than a dozen Hall of Famers become footnotes if your brand — those famed birds on the bat — becomes synonymous with cheating.
The stupidity of the act, as alleged, cannot be overstated, and shatters some stereotypes on the smarts of IT wizards capable of unlocking computer networks across miles (or oceans). This kind of hack — executed by hacks, themselves, apparently — leaves a trail like bloody footprints on a sidewalk. With the target a former Cardinals employee (Astros general manager Jeff Luhnow), you have to wonder what took the FBI so long to locate the now-infamous house in Jupiter, Florida, the Cardinals’ spring-training home where the breach was perpetrated.
Why would the Cardinals target Luhnow? Why would one of baseball’s best teams seek information from, until this season, one of baseball’s worst? As scouting director, Luhnow changed the way the Cardinals scout, draft, and develop players (the fabled “Cardinal Way”). He was in the front office, first under general manager Walt Jocketty, then under current Cardinal GM John Mozeliak as St. Louis built the most respected minor-league system in baseball. Luhnow’s tussles with Jocketty are well known, and perhaps he left some enemies behind at Busch Stadium when he took the Astros job. Whether the computer hack was intended to embarrass Luhnow or actually garner valuable tips on burgeoning baseball talent doesn’t really matter. One business broke into the brainpower safe of another.
Who knows the penalties the Cardinals will face — from the federal government, let alone the MLB commissioner’s office — if the allegations prove true. It will boil down to the same components of every scandal since Watergate: Who knew about the act, and who authorized it? At the very least, draft picks should be taken from the Cardinals and given to the Astros. Poetic justice, considering an expert on scouting is the human link between the two parties.
Be wary of the argument that this scandal is worse than the New England Patriots’ “Deflategate” or “Spygate.” It’s a lazy argument and suggests one form of cheating is more palatable than another. Is corporate espionage “worse” than rampant steroid abuse? You might as well compare the value of a field goal to that of a sacrifice bunt. Cheating is akin to pregnancy. You are of the condition or you are not. If Cardinal employees raided another business for information, the organization — at least by association — is guilty of a crime. Where this places them in the standings of modern-day cheats is a sideshow debate.
The love affair between “Cardinal Nation” and its favorite franchise will go on. My guess is that attendance at Busch Stadium may actually grow slightly (it can’t grow much with every game virtually sold out) as fans circle the wagons amid this massive controversy. As for the reputation of the franchise proudly represented by Rogers Hornsby, Stan Musial, Bob Gibson, and Ozzie Smith . . . time will tell. The Cardinal Way may become redefined, not so much for how a team is built and performs on the field, but how a franchise confronts, handles, and survives the largest crisis it has ever faced.