The FBI and Justice Department are investigating members of the St Louis Cardinals organization to see if team executives hacked into databases maintained by the Houston Astros.
“The St Louis Cardinals are aware of the investigation into the security breach of the Houston Astros’ database,” read a team statement on Tuesday. “The team has fully cooperated with the investigation and will continue to do so. Given that this is an ongoing federal investigation, it is not appropriate for us to comment further.”
If Cardinals employees did indeed hack into the Astros files it would be the first known case of a sports team penetrating the secret communications of another team. It would also signal a new era of information tracking in an industry where the tiniest piece of information could be worth tens of millions of dollars.
The New York Times says the investigation, which is being run by the FBI’s Houston field office, has reached a point where subpoenas have been served on the Cardinals and Major League Baseball. The sources for the Times story did not name which Cardinals officials were under investigation and would not say if the team’s highest officials knew of the hacking. The subpoenas on the MLB are due to the Cardinals’ membership of the league, rather than any suspicion that league officials are guilty of any wrongdoing.
The story says that investigators believe the Cardinals were concerned that Astros general manager Jeff Luhnow had taken some of the team’s proprietary information with him to Houston and some team employees used a list of passwords he kept in St Louis to break into the Astros system.
“The FBI aggressively investigates all potential threats to public and private sector systems,” said the agency in a statement. “Once our investigations are complete, we pursue all appropriate avenues to hold accountable those who pose a threat in cyberspace.”
Luhnow previously worked for the Cardinals as vice president of baseball development before eventually becoming the team’s scouting director. Before he got to the team he worked in business development. He was brought in by owner William DeWitt in 2003 to bring an analytics approach to assessing talent. This sometimes pitted against him against more traditional baseball evaluators in a scene reminiscent of the Moneyball where A’s general manager Billy Beane challenges the thinking of longtime baseball scouts.
After the 2011 season, the Astros hired Luhnow as the team’s general manager. At the time, the Astros were in the National League Central, the same division as the Cardinals, making them close competitors. Houston has since been moved to the American League as part of a larger league alignment plan.
Luhnow, who has led a stunning turnaround that has seen Houston go from the worst team in baseball to first place in the American League West division. But his organization’s open boasting about its analytics expertise annoyed many in baseball. When it was revealed that his staff of like-minded numbers crunchers dumped information into a database called “Ground Control” many traditionalists in baseball rolled their eyes.
Last summer, several documents from Ground Control were posted by Deadspin and proved embarrassing to the team. Most of the leaked files revolved around trade talks with other teams, revealing trades possibilities that had never been known before – a breach of information that was not only damaging to the Astros but to the other teams named in the files since several of the players discussed had no idea their teams were open to dealing them.
According to the Times it was this release of information that led MLB to contact the FBI. Eventually, the FBI was able to trace the computer that infiltrated the Astros network, discovering it was a laptop in a home where some Cardinals employees lived.
The right stolen information could be worth a fortune to a team. For instance, one club’s medical reports on a player might show a serious injury that others don’t know about, devaluing that player in free agency. Knowledge about one team’s interest in trading a star player might affect the way it pursues players itself, a decision that might mean the difference of millions in potential contracts.
A spokesperson for the MLB commissioner, Rob Manfred, confirmed the league knew about the investigation. “[MLB] has been aware of and has fully cooperated with the federal investigation into the illegal breach of the Astros’ baseball operations database,” read a statement.
The Cardinals and Astros were division rivals in the National League between 1994 and 2012, a feud that peaked with consecutive NLCS meetings in 2004 and 2005. St Louis are one of the most decorated teams in baseball history, and have the best record in MLB this season at 42-21. They have won the World Series 11 times – more than any club but the Yankees – including two victories in the last decade, in 2011 and 2006.