Exclusive: Astros GM Jeff Luhnow speaks out about hacking scandal
Tuesday morning’s New York Times report that the FBI and the Justice Department are investigating whether members of the front office of the St. Louis Cardinals were behind the hack of the Houston Astros’ internal database that came to light last summer sent shockwaves through the sports world, as it implicated one of baseball’s model franchises in an unprecedented and alleged criminal act of corporate espionage.
In the days since Times reporter Michael S. Schmidt broke the story, speculation about the breach’s details has run rampant, particularly concerning the still unknown identities, positions, methods and motivations of the alleged Cardinals’ perpetrators. Schmidt’s report, citing law enforcement officials, suggested that the breach was intended to disrupt the work of Jeff Luhnow—who was a Cardinals executive from 2003 until he was hired to be the Astros’ general manager in 2011—and was executed via passwords that he and other former Cardinals employees whom he brought with him to Houston had once used in St. Louis, and had presumably not changed.
On Wednesday night, the 49-year-old Luhnow commented on the report for the first time in an exclusive interview with SI.com. Luhnow said that he was not permitted to speak about the ongoing investigation—with which he and the Astros are fully cooperating—but he did address other elements of the report.
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One was the implication that the hackers had been able to gain access to the Astros’ database—which is called Ground Control and contains scouting and medical reports and statistical projections, among other data—because he had failed to change his old passwords. “That’s absolutely false,” said Luhnow, who worked as a technology executive before he began his career in baseball. “I absolutely know about password hygiene and best practices. I’m certainly aware of how important passwords are, as well as of the importance of keeping them updated. A lot of my job in baseball, as it was in high tech, is to make sure that intellectual property is protected. I take that seriously and hold myself and those who work for me to a very high standard.”
A second topic that Luhnow addressed was the concept that Cardinals officials, as Schmidt wrote, were “concerned that Mr. Luhnow had taken their idea and proprietary baseball information to the Astros,” and that they believed Luhnow had used intellectual property contained within St. Louis’s database, called Redbird, to create Ground Control. “I’m very aware of intellectual property and the agreements I signed,” Luhnow said. “I didn’t take anything, any proprietary information. Nor have we ever received any inquiries from anybody that even suggested that we had.”
Further, Luhnow added, the idea that one team’s outdated intellectual property would have remained helpful to a rival even in the short term is illogical. “If you were to take a snapshot of the database of one team, within a month it would not be useful anymore, because things change so quickly,” he said. “Not to mention that the types of analysis you would do back in 2011, versus 2012 or '13 , is evolving so quickly because of new tools like PitchFX and StatCast. I wouldn’t trust another team’s analysis even if I had it.”
Luhnow also rejected the idea that he was a polarizing presence in St. Louis who left behind him a trail of revenge-minded former colleagues. “I actually got along very well with everybody with the Cardinals,” he said. “I was friendly with the people I left behind there. A lot of them came to my wedding, when I got married in January 2012. The owner, the general manager, the assistant general manager, other executives, scouts were at my wedding. This wasn’t a bad breakup. It was a happy promotion of a person to a higher position in another organization.”
Luhnow said he shocked when the hack—which led to the publication of internal notes Astros officials had kept about private trade discussions they’d had with other clubs—was revealed last summer, and stunned to learn that members of the Cardinals front office were being investigated for it. But the news does not appear to have fundamentally hampered his from-the-foundation plan to rebuild the Astros. After three years in which they went a combined 176-310, they are now 39-28 and have a 2.5 game lead atop the American League West.
“At the time when it happened a year ago, it was like coming home and seeing your house has been broken into,” he said. “You feel violated when someone does that without permission. As far as whether it affected our ability to execute our plan? It's difficult to assess the effect, but we have continued to execute our plan and we are making progress. I had to call the other 29 GMs and apologize that private notes our organization had made had been made public. Those were not fun calls to make. But I’ve made several trades since then, and I’ve had no problems getting anybody on the phone.”
Despite the unprecedented breach, Luhnow’s plan to turn the Astros into contenders continues apace. The hack’s real damage, it appears, will be sustained by the Cardinals.