the sports section

The Cardinals’ Hacking Scandal Has Brought Sports Into the Surveillance Era

The Cardinals’ breach has cracked open Pandora’s box. Photo: Rob Leiter/Getty Images

You may have heard about the Great Baseball Hacking Scandal of 2015 — the St. Louis Cardinals’ front office breaking into the Houston Astros’ computer system and getting busted by the FBI (though no one has yet been charged or convicted). 

Among fans, this has been played mostly for laughs, an opportunity for a put-down. I’m a Cards fan, and in the wake of the scandal, I keep hearing from New England Patriots fans, still stung from the Spygate and Deflategate scandals that have made Bill Belichick and Tom Brady Public Enemies Nos. 1 and 2, who really want me to know they feel my pain. Just turn heel. Accept that everyone hates you. Be fueled by their tears. It’s always a bad sign when Bostonians approach bearing unsolicited advice, and I try to tell them, no, their scandals are much worse than mine. But I’m lying, to them and myself. Mine’s worse. And mine’s going to change sports in far vaster ways than some stupid air let out of some stupid footballs.

Let’s back up for a second. Over the past 30 years, the Moneyball revolution and the dominance of statistics and analytic thought have altered the way we watch baseball to the point that you have to sort of remind yourself to have a good time at a regular-season game. If advanced baseball theory has taught us anything, it is that one game absolutely does not matter. Every game, every inning, every out, every pitch, falls into what the world of baseball considers “small sample size” — just another bit of data thrown into the yawning pit of Analysis. Performances that used to play as heroic are now dismissed as freak accidents. And those peanuts, the Cracker Jacks, the seventh-inning stretch, all that crap you used to do with your dad, they’re just quaint accoutrements to a data set, the result of this one game merely a deviation destined to regress to the norm over time. So, you know, play ball!

I embrace this new world of baseball thought; those stats guys are actually right about nearly everything, and no one’s advocating going back to pretending the sun revolves around us. But it still requires a sort of emotional adjustment. And it has changed the way the game is played and perceived by those on the field, even those far away from front-office quantitative experts. Lately, it has done this namely in the aspect of cheating.

See, the big news from the hacking scandal is that, after a century or more of semi-comic continuity (Phil Niekro scuffing balls with an emery board, Graig Nettles stuffing his bat with six Super Balls, Albert Belle sending Jason Grimsley into the umpire’s room to retrieve his confiscated corked bat), cheating has changed, too. Remember, on-field cheating has been a part of baseball as long as there has been baseball. You can trace that history from the rascals who played the game in its infancy (many of whom were criminals) to the legacies of some Hall of Famers (Gaylord Perry, who admits throwing a spitter his entire career) to signature moments in the sport’s history (it has been rumored for decades that Bobby Thomson might have been tipped off by a sign stealer before he homered to win the 1951 pennant for the New York Giants). But these days, PED hysteria aside, what used to be seen as a scandal is now considered almost archaic old-school silliness — less a desire for competitive advantage and more a breaking of the unwritten rules governing sportsmanship and decorum. When Yankees pitcher Michael Pineda was ejected for pitching with the help of a “foreign substance” earlier this year, the opposing Red Sox weren’t mad that he used it. They were angry that they could see it. “Put it on your hat, put it on your pants, your belt, put it on your glove — whatever you have to do,” Boston catcher A. J. Pierzynski said. “No one has an issue with him doing it; it’s just more of the fact that it’s so blatant.” Players agree that cheating on the field can’t change much. They’d just rather everyone not see it so obviously.

Baseball has always involved cheating, because everything always involves cheating; this is America, after all. What the hacking scandal shows is that baseball is only tangentially played on the field anymore. No one cares, not really, if a player steals a sign or puts too much pine tar on his bat; all that’s just a small sample size. Information is more powerful than a home run: Information is countless home runs. Baseball is now run by Harvard M.B.A.’s and tech geeks and quantitative analysts holding proprietary information for companies that, oh, by the way, are worth billions of dollars. The game really unfolds in those algorithms, the stat-heads say. Which themselves unfold in computers. Which are therefore just begging to be hacked.

Now, it needs to be made clear that we don’t know yet exactly what kind of hacking the Cardinals were doing. The Feds are still sorting out the details, but according to one theory, the “breach” has less to do with stealing trade secrets than with sticking it to your boss: two low-level employees eager to embarrass Houston Astros general manager Jeff Luhnow (who used to work for the Cardinals and is said to have been disliked by many of his co-workers) by leaking ugly information to Deadspin. Some Cardinals flunkies found some old passwords, used them to root around the Astros database, got caught, and will end up being fired and/or prosecuted. The team fired scouting director Chris Correa for accessing the Astros database without authorization, but he says he didn’t take anything, and the incident appears to be independent of the FBI investigation. None of this proves the Cardinals were cheaters. It could just mean they employ some morons.

What matters more is what an experienced, nefarious hacker could have done. To paraphrase The Social Network, knowing a pitcher is going to throw a curveball because you saw the sign isn’t cool; knowing an entire opponent’s evaluation of every player in baseball, that’s cool. The sport is dominated these days by super­smart people evaluating every player, every pitch, for every possible advantage. The Astros’ central database is so advanced, so critical to the team’s sense of organizational direction, that management has given it a code name: “Ground Control.” The system contains “the repository of all our baseball knowledge,” as Luhnow put it to Joshua Green of Bloomberg; every bit of information the Astros had was funneled to Ground Control, from in-house evaluations of the team’s own players and others throughout the game to conversations with other teams about trade possibilities. This is as complex as global war: To the Yankees, having access to a Red Sox database like this would be the equivalent of the U.S. having Russia’s nuclear codes.

Thinking of these vulnerabilities only in terms of player evaluation is limiting your imagination, since every organization does its work almost entirely online now. And that’s just as true outside of baseball. You know how NFL coaches cover their mouths when they call plays and make sure the clipboard with all their plays on it is constantly hidden from view? They do that because they’re justifiably paranoid: They would strangle the family dog if it would give them a slight blocking mismatch on a trap play. Well, every team has its plays online somewhere; imagine being able, with the touch of a mouse, to know every play the opponent is going to run. (It’d be like calling the right defensive play in the old Tecmo Bowl.) That’s just the start. How about knowing another team’s budget? Its salary-cap situation? Its offers on free agents you’re competing with it for? There’s nothing you couldn’t find out and use. It makes all other forms of cheating in sports, from sign-stealing to PEDs, look comically dated. It’s a whole new planet.

Even if it was just some bored, stoned interns, the Cardinals’ breach has cracked open Pandora’s box. Think of it as drone warfare: People far away from the action fighting on far-off terrain. There are no rules in this war. They must wonder why we even need the battle­field at all.

*This article appears in the July 13, 2015 issue of New York Magazine.

The Sports World Enters the Surveillance Era