The St. Louis Cardinals versus the Houston Astros versus the FBI? Say it ain't so!

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June 16, 2015: The Cardinals are investigated by the FBI for allegedly hacking the Astros' proprietary database.

Despite the formal declarations of Jeb Bush and Donald Trump announcing their bids for the Republican presidential nomination, the continued handwringing over a white woman running an NAACP office—and doing a good job running it from what I understand—the continued tensions in the Ukraine and St. Louis’ own struggle with violence and an out-of-control homicide rate that is doing wonders for tourism, the big news in this town today was, of course, the St. Louis Cardinals. More specifically, it was the news that they are being investigated by the FBI for hacking the Houston Astros proprietary database.

I’m sorry, but my first reaction to this was to laugh out loud. The Feds must have us confused with Foxboro, Massachusetts, somehow.  This kind of garbage only happens to the New England Patriots, and of course nothing ever comes of it because the NFL trusts Robert Craft to take care of things. You know, like Tony Soprano trusted Paulie Walnuts for the same task. The Cardinals are one of the most storied franchises in Major League Baseball, right up there with the heavyweights, like the Yankees, Dodgers and Red Sox (see? I like Boston, just not the Patriots). They’ve had a run of success in the last 15 years or so that has made them the Dallas Cowboys of baseball, the team that the non-Cardinal Nation fans love to hate. Admittedly, St. Louis is pretty insulated from that. We hear about it, sure, just like we sometimes hear how the cross-state Kansas City Royals are doing from time to time. But Cardinal Nation takes up a pretty good swath of the Louisiana Purchase (look it up) and Busch Stadium, just a short walk from the Gateway Arch, is its capitol and epicenter. You can hate the Cardinals. That’s fine. Hate them from your couch in October.

Meanwhile, the Redbird faithful are busy pondering how long Jaime Garcia will continue to roll before his arm starts giving him trouble again, how long will Matt Holliday, having a very strong season thus far, will be out with a quad tear, how will phenom Carlos Martinez hold up down the stretch, and can the offense get by with strikeout artist Mark Reynolds manning first base--weighty stuff. For the record, I think Reynolds is doing just fine, Martinez and Michael Wacha are going to be dominant for a long time in this town, Holliday will be back when he’s ready and enjoy Garcia for as long as you can. One thing nobody and I mean nobody ever talks about here is the Houston Astros.

They were good rivals once. I grew up watching Nolan Ryan, Dickie Thon, Bill Doran, Terry Puhl and Jose Cruz Jr. (the son of a popular Cardinals player from the 1970s) wear those infamous rainbow warrior uniforms and recall enjoying the games. That was a likable team, they played the game right, just didn’t catch a lot of breaks. Hitting in the Astrodome was sort of the opposite of what hitting in what the Colorado Rockies’ Coors Field is today. The rivalry with the Chicago Cubs is as eternal as their streak of futility, and the rivalry with the New York Mets was brief but extreme during the days of Dwight Gooden, Darryl Strawberry and “pond scum.” You probably had to be there in the mid-80s to appreciate it. The Astros were a generally average team in the old National League West. When realignment moved both teams to the new National League Central, they found their footing and really challenged for the division honors. The Killer B’s of Craig Biggio, Jeff Bagwell, Lance Berkman and eventually Carlos Beltran helped break in the freshly minted Enron…er…Minute Maid Park, with its quirky and thankfully soon-to-be-eliminated hill and pole in center field and the train that runs from center to the short porch in left field.  With aging Yankee hurlers Andy Pettitte and Roger Clemens joining Roy Oswalt in the rotation, the 2004 edition had a spirited NLCS battle with the Cardinals. Every game was edge-of-your-seat action.

In 2005, Jeff Luhnow became the Cardinals Scouting Director as the previous director, John Mozeliak, was being repositioned to eventually become the team’s general manager. By 2008, Mozeliak was calling the shots with Luhnow handling the direction of both the scouting department and the farm system. It was here where Luhnow developed his own brand of sabermetrics, that peculiar system of statistical analysis that makes perfect sense to know-it-all sports columnists and about as much sense as Charlie Brown’s teacher debating against Chewbacca to everyone else. Learned baseball men understand it, and along with first hand scouting data and experience they make informed decisions on who to draft, who to trade for, who is trade bait and who should be fast-tracked through the system as soon as possible. Over the last decade, Luhnow has been responsible for drafting or developing more major league players than anyone else in the game. The man knows a thing or two about the Great American Pastime.

So were the Cardinals not paying any attention to Luhnow while he worked for the club? I find that highly unlikely. Mozeliak is a fan of advanced analytics himself. He might have even taught Luhnow a thing or two, though I imagine their partnership was mutually beneficial. That’s one of many reasons why this story is so strange. I don’t know of any animosity between the Cardinals and the Astros. The Astros moved to the American League West as part of an ownership change and have been seen rarely in the Gateway City since. When Luhnow was hired as general manager prior to the 2012 season, the club had been in freefall. From 2008-2011, they went 292-355 with one winning season. Since taking over the front office, Luhnow’s Astros are  241-338 through June 15, having lost 100 games in three consecutive seasons, twice under Luhnow. Last year was only 8 wins away from repeating the ignominious feat for four straight campaigns.

Why would anyone, especially the Cardinals, want the Astros’ information? Prior to this season, the Astros had lost just shy of 600 games since their last winning season in 2008. In that same span, from 2009-2014, the Cardinals won 542 games and missed the postseason only once. Has the Astros coveted database served them particularly well? To some extent, yes, though the team is currently in first place in a division that no one else wants to win. Turning around a team and putting in place a complicated and precise system takes time, a commodity too many teams in any sport are shortsighted and impatient about. Luhnow’s way is beginning to pay off for the Astros. I’m sure John Mozeliak and team owner Bill DeWitt Jr. are happy and proud of their former farm and scouting director. Here’s the thing: the Cardinals don’t know everything Jeff Luhnow knows, but they know quite a bit of it. They know how to apply the same or similar principles to their own players or players that they may covet or seek to draft. Most teams today employ some level of sabermetrics to their research and analysis. The rest is good ol’ fashioned elbow grease. The GM has to stretch his arm to the telephone on his desk, hit the “hands free” button and call another GM to say, “Hey Chuck, tell me about this Ramirez kid you have in A-ball.” The GM already knows about the kid. His stats are publicly available on MLB.com, MiLB.com (the official minor league site), ESPN, Baseball-Refence.com, etc. You or I could see trends in the year-by-ear progression of a ballplayer. Good ol’ Chuck may or may not have much to say about the kid, either because the kid is going to be a star in a couple more seasons or he doesn’t want to look like an overeager used car salesman. Bud Selig was a car salesman. I rest my case. In any event, a smart GM would send his best and most trusted scouts to judge for themselves, to make sure Chuck didn’t forget to mention the arm like overcooked spaghetti.

Baseball just isn’t that hard to figure out as long as you’re not standing in the batter’s box, sixty feet and six inches from a six-and-a-half feet tall fellow with a long arm span and a longer stride hurling a nine-inch diameter sphere of tightly packed material at your similarly rounded wood stick in which you have nanoseconds to read the spin of the pitch, figuring the velocity and vector so that you can impact the ball at a point of contact of less than an inch to impart a greater reverse velocity and vector—that part is hard. I’m not making light of the general manager position but there are fantasy managers who could probably do just well as some of their real-life counterparts. Like any sport, if you have a couple of bona fide superstars and good team health, you should do quite well. The problem is luck. You either have it or you don’t. You can go out and sign the best 25 players in the game and 18 of them will have down years, nine of them will end up on the disabled list at some point or another, two of them might get suspended for using performance enhancing drugs, at least three of them will need Tommy John surgery before the season is over, and they’ll miss the playoffs by 1.5 games. Alternatively, you could grow an organic farm, rich with players of average or better quality. Some of them will grow to be major stars, some of them will be good enough to package in trades for other stars, and if you continue to draft well and employ a solid “build from within” strategy, you should be poised for long-term success. That’s part of what has come to be known as “The Cardinal Way.” That’s part of what is becoming “The Astros Way” too. The Tampa Bay Rays have become a contender in a very expensive division to compete in. The Cardinal Way and the success it has brought to the club has earned the club legions of fans and a small but vociferous band of haters from larger markets who haven’t succeeded despite much higher payrolls. The Cardinals Way does not and need not include corporate espionage.

Clearly the Houston Astros and the FBI believe there was a data breach. Information was leaked on the internet that couldn’t have possibly occurred any other way. What was that information? That Colby Rasmus is very difficult to coach? This was already well-established during his tumultuous tenure in St. Louis. How about Brett Wallace, the stocky hitting machine traded for Matt Holliday in 2009? He hasn’t been on a big league roster since 2013. Oooh, how about the sundry details of a trade that never happened between the Astros and Florida Marlins for Miami fan favorite Giancarlo Stanton? Who cares if it didn’t happen? Certainly not the Cardinals since they weren’t involved. Calling Luhnow’s statistic database “proprietary” seems like a bit of a stretch since he most certainly developed it during his Cardinal years. Yes, to some degree all stats are proprietary—they’re all the property of Major League Baseball and the teams themselves. There also isn’t a blessed thing their lawyers can do if I figure out Astros all-star second baseman Jose Altuve’s batting average, OPS and WAR all by myself.  I could devise a stat called JEFF—Juxtaposed Equivalent Fielding Factor, let’s say, since defense seems to be perpetually under-analyzed anyway—and call it proprietary, take out a trademark or patent or something, and the brilliant Bill James would figure it out in ten minutes even if I never published my formula. Stats are just numbers. You can lock them up as securely as you want, assign perceived values to them in relation to physical performance, and ultimately you don’t have anything any other team doesn’t have in their own format. The Cardinals can tell you all about deals that never happened, if you ask them nicely.

The issue here isn’t so much a criminal problem (I get it—hacking is against the law. Kids, don’t try it at home. This means you, North Korea.) as it is a moral one. If the Cardinals didn’t need to hack the Astros to gain nothing of real value, why do it? Well, the semi-flippant answer is “because they can.” Apparently Jeff Luhnow’s passwords haven’t changed much over the years. I could l guess my manager’s password and be not terribly surprised to find out it works on their personal Yahoo or Amazon accounts too. Despite the constant drilling from every company’s Information Security department, nobody really wants to remember a dozen or more different passwords with capital and lower case letters, numbers and keyboard symbols. Most of us have a couple of regular passwords, at most, constantly at the ready. That Jeff Luhnow is just like you or I should be no big surprise. That someone might take advantage of such a basic security vulnerability isn’t a surprise to me except in the fact that it hasn’t happened long before now, apparently. I think it’s a stretch to call it hacking at all. To me, hacking is breaking through the firewall of Sony, Target, or the U.S. State Department. Using your old boss’ password and finding it still works even though he now works for a competing firm is really rather sophomoric.

The FBI and the teams involved in this case have been careful not to name a specific suspect. All that’s been said is that the breach originated “from a computer at a home that some Cardinals employees had lived in,” according to the NY Times article that broke the story. Well, that certainly narrows things down. It could be anyone from the person with the unenviable task of dancing in the Fredbird mascot costume in the stifling St. Louis summer heat and humidity to some office assistant who didn’t care for Luhnow’s leadership. From what I can piece together between the Times article and subsequent stories from ESPN and the St. Louis Post Dispatch, this was a pretty unsophisticated breach. As I said before, it was sophomoric in terms of hacking, but perhaps even more so in terms of intent. Why would anyone hack somebody and just dump it all on the internet? Why wouldn’t this criminal mastermind utilize the data for the Cardinals benefit, either by adapting the team’s analytics to mirror the Astros or to gain the upper hand in trade negotiations? After all, a criminal mastermind would almost certainly just lie if confronted. “Hey, how do you know about Jackson’s weak meniscus?” “We have scouts too, you know. Wink-wink, nudge-nudge, say no more!”

When the FBI releases their findings, one of a several possibilities will happen. The league could, within the bounds of the authority of the Commissioner as the protector of the best interests and integrity of the game if not precedence, penalize the Cardinals with the loss of draft picks and a hefty monetary fine. This would be akin to the penalty the NHL imposed on the St. Louis Blues for “tampering” with defenseman Scott Stephens of the New Jersey Devils, the difference being that the Cardinals and Cardinal Nation will get over it. Or the team will quietly fire the jerk who gave the club such a black eye in the realm of public perception, the league will address it in the next collective bargaining agreement and everyone moves on. With a bit of luck on both sides, the Cardinals and Astros could renew their old rivalry on the grand stage of the World Series, perhaps this year, perhaps for some years to come. That would be the best outcome, to simply let the better team prevail between the foul line, and we all tip our caps to the winner in good grace. The third alternative, that Bill DeWitt Jr., John Mozeliak, or any other highly placed Cardinals executive would knowingly direct or condone such an activity that makes Watergate look Hollywood slick, is almost impossible for the diehards of Cardinal Nation to contemplate. I have a “Say it ain’t so!” response already queued up. I’d like to think the leaders of arguable the most successful team in the National League would be above reproach. If I’m wrong about the team’s upper brass and their level of class, then The Cardinal Way is a lie and Cardinal Nation will take to the streets with torches and pitchforks to drive the monster(s) out of town. It will be a sorry spectacle that the coastal network radio jockeys who seem to have such axes to grind against the Redbirds will take much delight in reporting. If that happens, they have no one to blame but themselves.

It’s all speculative at this point. Mum’s the word until the G-Men conclude their investigation. For a troubled city that lives and dies by its Cardinals team, this would be a dagger in the heart. I hope it’s merely a sloppy fastball that got away, and the club winds up with severely bruised pride and a hard lesson learned. Call me a homer, a local yokel, whatever suits you, but though I was born and raised in the heart of Cardinal Nation my allegiance is to the game itself, and whether you root for the Astros, Cubs, Dodgers, Yankees, Red Sox or any team, do we not all cling to the hope that springs eternal in the human breast? That’s the hope I have, that even the FBI and some jerk with old anger issues can’t tarnish the game or any club beyond repair. I’ll save hoping for a decent presidential candidate or race to become a complete non-factor in everyone’s lives for another day.