At first blush, it sounds like the stuff of “Dumb and Dumber” … with a dash of spy thriller intrigue.
But mostly the terms of the initial report on the St. Louis Cardinals’ alleged hacking of the Houston Astros’ computer database is reminiscent of the dynamics of Watergate.
Consider the brazenness of the act; the clumsy, unsophisticated nature of its execution; the apparently detached, rogue group that allegedly contrived it all through a home computer; and the sheer gratuitousness of it when no competitive advantage was needed.
Ultimately, the most salient questions will be the same, too.
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How high up did the chain did it go?
What did those at the top know, and when did they know it?
This is what the Cardinals inevitably will be faced with reconciling after a stupefying report in The New York Times on Tuesday that FBI and Justice Department prosecutors are investigating the franchise — one of Major League Baseball’s most decorated, reputable and revered — for an invasion of the Astros’ database.
There is a lot that is absurd about this case. In one way or another, it seems to revolve around a targeting of Jeff Luhnow, a former Cardinals executive wizard who took over as Houston’s general manager in December 2011.
After all, the Cardinals were enjoying much their typical prosperity while the Astros were losing 310 games in the first three years under Luhnow. The Astros had moved to the American League from the National League Central, so no longer were in the same division as the Cardinals, much less the same league. And Luhnow, bright innovator that he might be, evidently used many of the same passwords in Houston that he had in St. Louis.
If you’re not a Cardinals fan, there is plenty of fun to be had over this apparent comeuppance.
For starters, the organization has been postured as a model. That success and fans’ adoration of their team (and proclamation by some as the best in the game) have fostered resentment among other fan bases.
Perhaps that’s most pointed here on the other side of the state, where Royals fans are demonstrating their dedication in remarkable ways now that the franchise has been revived.
When the high and mighty take a fall, it’s practically human nature to revel in it.
The Germans have a word for this: schadenfreude, or enjoying the miseries of others. An Americanized version might be the notion of crabs in a bucket that supposedly will yank back one that’s trying to climb out.
Who knows if that’s actually something crabs do — but the metaphor is apt. Because enjoy this as you might, the allegations if proved true would be a loss for all.
It would diminish not just the Cardinals but also further bludgeon a flickering belief in our institutions and, more specifically, the notion that ethics prevail in sports.
Say it ain’t so, Cardinals.
Despite the fallacy of some golden past, cheating has of course been part of sports since the ancient Olympics. Deflategate is only the latest example.
But this looms well beyond the sphere of Patriot games.
As the focus of an FBI and Justice Department investigation, this allegation is on another tier from what we’ve known as disreputable in sports — and not just because it would account for the first known case of corporate espionage among professional sports rivals.
This would be no misdemeanor of gamesmanship, but a criminal act. Its potential repercussions are heavy but incalculable before more is known about the truth of it and how and why it was executed and how high up it was commissioned, or at least sanctioned.
Those revelations in turn could lead to more questions, particularly along the lines of … what else have the Cardinals been up to?
All of these thoughts, of course, are suppositions, the logical connection of dots to their extreme end that may or may not connect at all.
Maybe it’s at worst the self-contained act of a few, prompted by some combination of simple dislike or jealousy of Luhnow, an attempt to sabotage him.
The Times reported that team employees were concerned Luhnow had taken proprietary information from the Cardinals’ “Redbird” database and implemented it into Houston’s “Ground Control” program.
For a glimpse at what was contained therein, we turn to Sports Illustrated’s Ben Reiter, who last year wrote a cover story on the Astros’ rebuilding effort and on Tuesday framed “Ground Control” thusly:
“It contains scouting reports (complete with on-demand video), statistics, injury histories and projections for every professional player and amateur prospect on the pro radar. It suggests the optimal defensive shift to be deployed against every opposing batter. It allows team executives to view the locations and schedules of all of their scouts on any given day and to figure out how to most efficiently deploy them. It enables them to keep notes on trade discussions.”
Beyond a voyeuristic fascination, it’s hard to see how prowling around in such data would have been strategically worthwhile for the Cardinals, who now may be facing their day in federal court.
In the meantime, they’re left flapping in the court of public opinion, stuck with the burden of proof to show that these allegations either are untrue or against an isolated group that acted on its own.
Trouble is, the tarnish on a treasured civic trust figures to linger anyway.
And that’s even if there is no evidence of a cover-up that would be worse than the crime.