The Cardinals have come home to roost, or so they should. On Friday in a federal courtroom in Houston, former Redbirds scouting director Chris Correa pleaded guilty to five charges of hacking the Houston Astros’ proprietary Ground Control computer database. This is not simply a case of guessing your wife’s Amazon password to find out what she bought you for your birthday. This is not posting something unseemly on your buddy’s Twitter account after he leaves his phone open when he goes to take a leak. The FBI doesn’t investigate such trifles.
Correa was first hired by the Cardinals in 2009, when he worked in the baseball development department. His boss through 2011: Jeff Luhnow, a man who would go on to take over Houston’s baseball operations. According to the charges, Correa obtained Luhnow’s password when the former turned it in upon leaving the organization. Because Luhnow used a very similar password with the Astros, Correa was able to figure it out, thus gaining access to Ground Control.
Correa claims that he conducted this bit of cyber espionage in an attempt to seek out and steal back information that Luhnow had taken from St. Louis. That’s akin to breaking-and-entering your ex’s house just to get your favorite jersey back, but there’s at least a sort of warped nobility in it. Well, as long as you get a little fast and loose with the concept of nobility. Thing is, the excuse holds about as much water as the leading brand in every toilet paper commercial. As Jeff Passan laid out Friday when he wrote that MLB must hammer the Cardinals, the charges speak to something a bit more nefarious.
On March 24, he 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, 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.
That’s breaking into your ex’s house, trashing the place, and then leaving an upper decker on the way out. I know there have been and will be myriad attempts to justify or diminish these actions, but they’re all about as hollow and useful as the aluminum bottles rolling down Clark or Broadway after a Cards game (yes, Clark borders Busch too). So what if Luhnow should have used a different password. So what if Correa fancied himself baseball’s version of Robin Hood. We’re talking about a flippin’ federal crime here. But no matter how great the infraction, the criminal aspect begins and ends with Correa.
I don’t think I’m alone in harboring more than a sliver of skepticism over the idea that a single soul, particularly one at the director level as Correa was, bore all the responsibility for this ordeal. I suppose it’s possible that this guy was a little bent out of shape and perhaps felt abandoned by his former boss. Maybe he just wanted to make a name for himself and thought going all War Games on the Astros’ database would give him the edge to move up in St. Louis or elsewhere in MLB. Whatever his motivation and even if his actions were solitary and unbeknownst to anyone else, his former organization is going to need to take some heat for this in the court of baseball, not to mention public opinion.
And by “some heat,” I mean that the Cardinals need to give up a boatload of cash and a few picks as well. Speaking of draft picks, does anyone else find it interesting that the Cardinals picked just ahead of the Astros in the 2014 draft from the 2nd round on? If you’ve ever played fantasy sports, you can imagine how valuable it would be to know who your fellow league members were looking at in the spots around which you were picking. But even the best sleeper pick in the most competitive fantasy baseball league doesn’t provide the high stakes and huge payoffs of the MLB draft.
Regardless of how confident you are in your own evaluations, having access to a whole separate set of scouting reports, not to mention your competitor’s other potential moves, would provide a significant strategic advantage. When news of the hack first broke, there were plenty of jokes about how silly it was for the best team in baseball to be stealing from a bottom feeder. Those making light of it didn’t really understand the situation though. Luhnow isn’t some bumbling idiot, as the Astros’ playoff berth in the competitive AL West this season proved. When you’re on top, as Correa (I still can’t get over the fact that both the Cardinals felon and Astros Rookie of the year share a surname) and the Cardinals were, the temptation to cut corners to stay there is going to be strong.
Even if the rest of the organization had absolutely zero knowledge of what their employee was doing from a Spring Training home shared by several other employees, the fact remains that the team directly benefited from his illegal actions. The court placed a value of $1.7 million on the information Correa stole from the Astros, but simply fining St. Louis that paltry sum is not enough. Consider that a value of $8 million for an incremental win means that the Cards would have needed to gain only .212 WAR in order to make up for it. And the new TV deal the team is getting makes such a fine look like a pittance too.
So what is commissioner Rob Manfred to do? I turn once again to Passan, since he basically echoes my thoughts:
What speaks to any organization – what especially speaks to one like the Cardinals that have built their team through savvy drafting – is the prospect of losing picks. It’s a penalty with legitimate teeth and unquestionable consequences. Take away picks. Take away draft-pool dollars. Take away international-bonus money. Hit them on the field as a consequence for their duplicity off it.
The Cardinals have long been a model organization, but now baseball is going to have to use them to set a different kind of example. They’ve hoisted plenty of pennants and now they’re going to be hoisted on their own petard. I agree with Passan about the loss of picks and pool money and I think the forfeiture needs to take place over two or more seasons, perhaps with a diminution in the penalties in successive years.
I’d even take it a step further, though, advocating for an expansion draft of sorts in which the Cardinals are forced to surrender one each of their best hitters and pitchers to their biggest rival. Or maybe they’d only be allowed to sign mediocre free agents. Now that I think about it, maybe MLB has actually begun the punishment process already.
Read the full indictment of Chris Correa below: