The accusations read like something out of a season finale for an HBO drama about Major League Baseball front offices and the lengths to which they'll go in order to win. Repeated computer hacking, password theft, vengeance. It all seems so surreal. But it happened. It happened to the Houston Astros and general manager Jeff Luhnow, and on Friday the U.S. Attorney's Office made public all of its findings in the case of former St. Louis Cardinals' scouting director Chris Correa's illegal hacking of the Astros' proprietary Ground Control database back in 2013 and 2014.
When Correa's underhanded, illegal activity was first discovered, the Cardinals tried to play it off as a rogue employee attempting to see if a former Cardinals' employee (Luhnow) had taken any proprietary information with him upon leaving the organization in 2011. However, through use of Luhnow's password from the laptop he had returned to the Cardinals upon his leaving them in 2011, Correa was able to repeatedly go behind enemy cyber-lines and access draft information, scouting reports, emails, and signing bonus data. It was far from a one-off.
If you needed any evidence for just how motivated Correa was to continually remain updated on the inner workings of Luhnow's personnel department, just know that after changing Ground Control's URL, Correa hacked into Luhnow's Astros email to get the new default password Espionage maintained!
According to the federal government's report, many of Correa's hacks took place around crucial times on the baseball calendar. Courtesy of Yahoo!, here's a timeline of the most prominent breaches:
The employee, noted as Employee A in the indictment, used a similar password with the Astros, and Correa gained entry to Ground Control and an email account using it in March 2013.
On March 24, Correa downloaded an Excel file from Ground Control that ranked every draft-eligible player. He looked at other pages that included notes on trade discussions, what the Astros thought of Cardinals prospects, potential draft bonuses and scouting reports. The final 30 rounds of the draft took place June 8, when Correa accessed Ground Control again – and sorted the list of players by those still undrafted.
Seven weeks later, on July 31 – the day of baseball's non-waiver trade deadline – Correa logged into Ground Control to once again see the Astros' trade discussions. The talks eventually wound up on an anonymous sharing site in June 2014, the Astros' innermost workings laid bare for the world to see.
By then, Correa had pulled his most egregious trick yet. After the Astros changed the URL on Ground Control and ordered users to change their passwords, all in a security effort, Correa logged into the employee's email, found the new URL and default password, and accessed Ground Control once more, at which point he pored over 118 pages of documents, from trade discussions to potential international signings to a plethora of draft information. It was like a guy's ex changing the locks and him stealing her purse so he could get a copy of the new key. And the reason for St. Louis' interest surely went beyond plain curiosity.
Jeff Passan of Yahoo! goes on to point out correctly that in the 2014 draft, the Astros were picking first in every round and the Cardinals were picking last, which means the Cardinals were choosing one pick in front of every Astros' selection (aside from the first overall pick, obviously). Essentially, by knowing the Astros' scouting reports on every player, Correa had illegally obtained the answers to the test. The $1.7 million number that the government arrived at to denote damages caused by Correa to the Astros seems ridiculously low when you consider that just one quality player can be worth dozens of wins and millions of dollars.
The federal government should deal with Correa swiftly enough. In this web-centric age that we live in, hopefully Correa receives far more than a slap on the wrist. By the letter of the law, he could receive as much as a $250,000 fine and spend five years in prison for each charge. Jail time needs to happen.
From purely a baseball standpoint, I have three thoughts:
1. This isn't meant to pile on or assign blame to the victim, but damn, you'd think a guy as sharp as Jeff Luhnow would exercise more discretion and variation in his password selection. I mean, I suppose you don't expect a member of the management team of a franchise as revered as the Cardinals to engage in low-rent password theft, but still.
2. Major League Baseball has to hammer the St. Louis Cardinals for this. And I don't mean some Home Depot tool kit ball-peen hammer. I mean the hammer of Thor. Draft picks, fines, and I tell you what ... I'd even be okay with baseball allowing the Astros to cherry pick a few of the Cardinals prospects from their organization. Maybe just limit it to "prospects the Cardinals chose in the drafts of 2013 and 2014," in theory the two drafts conducted while Correa had access to the Astros innermost thoughts and feelings on draft prospects. This is a new realm of transgression for Commissioner Rob Manfred to adjudicate. The precedent set must completely dissuade and frighten any team from even thinking of pulling a stunt like Correa did.
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3. A broader and less salacious concern for Manfred just might be how relatively little attention this scandal has received. I realize that sounds counter-intuitive. After all, why would any captain of industry WANT a spotlight shone on such a black mark for the sport? However this is, in a roundabout way, a fantastic gauge for where baseball sits on America's relevance meter. Think about it. The St. Louis Cardinals, who from an accomplishment and stature standpoint are essentially the New England Patriots of their sport, had a high ranking official illegally stealing trade secrets from a division rival for months. If this had actually been the Patriots doing this to, say, the New York Jets, can you imagine the international attention the story would be getting? Hell, we, as a nation, spent six months debating and arguing about deflated footballs. This is actual corporate espionage investigated by the feds! And 48 hours after the government's report came out, there's nothing about it on ESPN.com's front page for its BASEBALL section, let alone the overall front page of the website.
Scandals come and scandals go. Eventually, Correa and the Cardinals will receive their punishments, and we who cover the sport will all move on. But the people who watch sports, in general, already seem to have moved on, if they were ever really moved by the story to begin with.
And that collective public disinterest in something so concerning should be a pretty daunting heat check for Manfred about baseball's place on America's sports radar.
Listen to Sean Pendergast on SportsRadio 610 from 2 to 7 p.m. weekdays. Also, follow him on Twitter at http://twitter.com/SeanTPendergast and like him on Facebook at https://www.facebook.com/SeanTPendergast.