For major-league baseball teams, a certain amount of chicanery, like trying to steal the signals an opposing team’s catcher uses to tell pitchers what to throw, or that coaches use to direct on-field strategy, is considered a normal part of the game.
But according to recent reports, Federal Bureau of Investigation agents and federal prosecutors are probing whether front-office staff for the St. Louis Cardinals went beyond the bounds of gamesmanship into corporate espionage and computer hacking, both federal crimes. In a story first covered by the New York Times on June 16, employees of the St. Louis Cardinal are being probed on suspicion of hacking into a proprietary computer database, known as Ground Control, belonging to the Houston Astros, supposedly to discover the team’s secret data and plans in such competitive areas as player trades, scouting reports and analyses of player performance.
There was little doubt the Houston team’s database had been hacked: as early as last year, nearly a year’s worth of database entries on trade scuttlebutt had somehow made their way onto an internet site for anonymous postings. The FBI had quietly launched an investigation run by its Houston office, and issued subpoenas for emails Major League Baseball (which, some insiders say, initially called in the FBI, expecting to find the hacking had been done by outsiders).
The investigation soon discovered what law enforcers called relatively unsophisticated intrusions into the Astros’ database. But rather than outsiders, FBI probers found signs linking the hacks to a computer line to a Jupiter, Florida condominium where at least four Cardinals staffers lived during spring training. Over three months before the investigation became public, FBI agents subpoenaed Cardinals’ email, seized computers from the St. Louis team; the Cardinals and a number of its front-office staff retained counsel (the team’s owner and senior managers denied knowledge of any hacking, and suggested it might have been unauthorized, “roguish” acts by lower-level staff).
Hearing the news, many sports fans wondered aloud why the Cardinals would bother hacking the Houston team, which since its 2012 shift to the American League, had not been a direct rival of the National League Cardinals. But sports commentators and government investigators noted a fact they were not inclined to view as a coincidence: the Astros’ current general manager is Jeff Luhnow — who late in 2011 left the Cardinals, where as head of scouting and player development, he had helped turn the Cardinals into perennial contender — and had set up a similar private database, known as Redbird Dog, for the St. Louis team. Perhaps, they surmised, St. Louis staff had hacked into the Astros’ database to check whether Luhnow had pilfered material from the Cardinals’ database to plug into Ground Control.
On July 3, the Cardinals announced the firing of Chris Correa, 34, its director of scouting, who had earlier been put on leave during the team’s internal investigation. Correa’s lawyer maintained his client had done nothing wrong, then suggested the real subject for investigation ought to be Houston’s alleged misappropriation of Cardinals’ data.
Although four other Cardinals front-office staffers have been told by the FBI they are not targets of the probe, Correa and any others found to be involved in the hacking could face indictments under the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act, which could bring both fines and prison terms. If federal probers decide a team was wrongly accessing and using a competitor’s trade secrets, the government could also invoke the Economic Espionage Act.
Aside from government action, team misdeeds could bring discipline by Major League Baseball. Shortly before the All-Star Game. Commissioner Rob Manfred told baseball writers he did not foresee a speedy end to the probe.