One hundred and 15 years ago, the Philadelphia Phillies stole information—in the form of signs from the opposing catcher—by running an underground wire from the their clubhouse in centerfield to a buzzer in the ground in the third-base coaching box, where one of their coaches could feel it vibrate underfoot. The 1951 Giants stole information with a spyglass. The 1960 White Sox used binoculars. Pedro Martinez wrote in his recent book that the 2003 Red Sox feared the Yankees had bugged the visitors’ clubhouse at Yankee Stadium.
Now baseball’s long tradition of the Dark Arts of stealing information officially has entered the cyber age, with a New York Times report that the Cardinals are under FBI investigation for hacking into the propriety information system of the Astros, which has the code name Ground Control.
But here’s what is so fascinating and new about someone breaking into the data base of the Astros: The motivation seems based more on causing public embarrassment to Houston general manager and former Cardinals executive Jeff Luhnow than on gaining any competitive leverage. It’s one thing to steal information. It’s quite another to leak that information and share it with the world, as was done last year, rather than use it surreptitiously.
“The motivation, especially having the information published, seems to have been to embarrass him,” said a source familiar with the investigation.
Said one baseball source not familiar with the investigation, “There are people with the Cardinals who think Luhnow took credit for a lot of the things St. Louis has been doing for years. It wouldn’t be surprising that any chance they would have to embarrass him, they would take it.”
The Cardinals released this statement in response to the report: “The St. Louis Cardinals are aware of the investigation into the security breach of the Houston Astros’ database. 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.”
Luhnow left the Cardinals for the Astros in December 2011. News of the breach first broke last June, with leaks posted online that detailed propriety Astros information from a 10-month period beginning with July 2013 trade deadline discussions. The investigation began after the Astros reported that breach.
Major League Baseball, which has been looped into the investigation by the FBI for the past year, is waiting for the feds to complete their work before deciding on any possible discipline.
This is not the first investigation into possible theft of cyber information in baseball. As far back as 1989, Major League Baseball investigated a complaint from Yankees owner George Steinbrenner that two of his former front office employees, Syd Thrift and Jim Bowden, may have stolen scouting information from Pittsburgh Pirates computers when they left that organization. Thrift was fired by Pittsburgh after the 1988 season and Bowden quit the next day. Both men were hired by the Yankees five months later, with Bowden hired to work on the team’s computer systems. Thrift quit the Yankees in August 1989, whereupon Steinbrenner fired Bowden. Steinbrenner then alerted MLB that the pair may have illegally accessed information from the Pirates’ software systems. One month later, baseball dropped its investigation, concluding in a statement, “We have looked into allegations that Pittsburgh scouting information may have been tampered with. At this time, we see no reason to continue to pursue this issue.”