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Cardinals' reputation at stake in federal probe of Astros hacking

Cardinals' reputation at stake in federal probe of Astros hacking

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Cards beat the Pirates 7-0 at Busch Stadium

Cardinals chairman Bill Dewitt Jr. (left) and general manager John Mozeliak at Busch Stadium. (Photo by J.B. Forbes, jforbes@post-dispatch.com)

ST. LOUIS • The Cardinals, widely considered an industry leader when it comes to contending on the field and being innovative off of it, are the subject of an investigation by the FBI and Justice Department to determine whether club officials hacked into the Houston Astros’ baseball operations database.

The investigation, confirmed through officials by the Post-Dispatch after being reported by The New York Times, stems from a breach more than a year ago in the Astros’ database that houses scouting reports, medical information and other proprietary evaluations of players.

No charges have resulted from the investigation, though the revelation of its existence could change the Cardinals’ reputation and brand during an era of unprecedented success that includes four consecutive National League championship series appearances, four World Series, and two championships in the past 12 seasons.

The Times wrote that investigators believed the hack was a malicious attempt “to wreak havoc on the work of Jeff Luhnow,” the Astros’ general manager and a former Cardinals’ executive who helped modernize the team’s use of statistics and reshape its approach to baseball’s amateur draft.

Individuals in the Cardinals’ front office declined to comment. General manager John Mozeliak did the same through a spokesman.

The team is “aware of the investigation into the security breach of the Houston Astros’ database,” the Cardinals said in a statement. “The team has fully cooperated with the investigation and will continue to do so.”

The Cardinals added that because it was an ongoing investigation they would not make any additional comments Tuesday. That sentiment was echoed by the Houston Astros, who acknowledge “cooperating with an ongoing federal investigation.”

Major League Baseball has been involved in the investigation since it began a year ago. The New York Times reported that the federal investigators are far enough along to have served subpoenas to the Cardinals and MLB for electronic correspondence. A spokesman for the commissioner’s office said Major League Baseball “has been aware of and has fully cooperated with the federal investigation into the illegal breach of the Astros’ baseball operations database. Once the investigative process has been completed by federal law enforcement officials, we will evaluate the next steps and will make decisions promptly.”

The commissioner has the power to enforce a wide range of punishments, including substantial fines, on a club for such an infraction, should he choose.

Unlike other recent sports investigations that involved breach of rules on the fields of play, from deflated footballs to inflated muscles, this one could result in a violation of federal law.

Baseball commissioner Rob Manfred, speaking to reporters in Boston, suggested patience should come before judgment because the investigation had not been completed.

“To assume that that investigation is going to produce a particular result in respect to the Cardinals, let alone jump to the use of a word like ‘cyberattack,’ we don’t know that those are the facts,” Manfred said. “It really doesn’t make sense for me to speculate as to how serious a problem we have. Soon enough, I think we’ll have full information as to what went on. I think you can rest assured that we will act appropriately at that time.”

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The individuals who are the focus of the investigation are not known, though many members of the Cardinals’ front office hired attorneys as a result. In late February, the FBI visited Busch Stadium and took computers as part of the investigation.

It is also not clear how high up in the front office the investigation reaches. The Cardinals’ baseball operations department overseen by general manager Mozeliak includes amateur and pro scouts, a farm system director, an assistant general manager, scouting directors, and a statistical analyst group sometimes referred to as “the quants.” An official said that no member of the team’s baseball operations staff has been suspended or fired.

Two Cardinals employees referred a Post-Dispatch reporter to lawyer Matthew Schelp. Schelp confirmed that he represents several Cardinals analysts involved in the probe. Schelp said that his clients were cooperating and were not targets of the investigation. He declined to comment further and referred a reporter to the team’s statement, released earlier Tuesday.

Lawyers for other employees either couldn’t be immediately reached for comment or declined to comment.

James G. Martin, who is representing the Cardinals, also referred a reporter to the team’s statement.

Chairman Bill DeWitt Jr. could not be reached for comment Tuesday.

The lead for the investigation is the FBI’s field office in Houston, and it involves the U.S. attorney’s office in the Southern District. The U.S. attorney’s office has specialists trained in computer hacking and intellectual property cases that would be involved.

Officials at both offices declined to confirm an investigation.

“The FBI aggressively investigates all potential threats to public and private sector systems,” a spokesman for the FBI’s field office in Houston wrote in an email. “Once our investigations are complete, we pursue all appropriate avenues to hold accountable those who pose a threat in cyberspace.”

There has not been another professional sports team accused of corporate espionage.

The Cardinals hired Luhnow in 2003 and empowered him to oversee the organization and expansion of the team’s analytics department. At the time, Moneyball, named for the book about the Oakland Athletics’ use of statistics to identify market inefficiencies when acquiring talent, was the rage, sweeping through baseball. Luhnow’s background in economics and technology provided him a nontraditional approach to baseball, but he gradually increased his sphere of influence. Starting in 2005, Luhnow oversaw the Cardinals’ scouting and amateur draft, and the team experienced an influx of prospects that would nourish this run of postseason appearances and titles.

Growing friction between Luhnow and then-general manager Walt Jocketty was cited as one of the reasons for Jocketty’s dismissal after the 2007 season. Sig Mejdal, a former Cardinals’ employee and now Houston’s director for decision sciences, told Bloomberg Business that Luhnow is “an agent of change in an industry that, to be quite frank, didn’t want him.”

Mozeliak replaced Jocketty in October 2007, unified the front office, and offered a strong recommendation for Luhnow when the Astros came calling about their general manager opening. Mozeliak and the organization he has shaped has been described by peers as “the model.”

One of the early projects Luhnow was involved in with the Cardinals was organizing and coding a database the team could use for evaluating talent. Nicknamed “Redbird Dog” — or “RBD” — the early stages melded scouting information and statistical analysis to help create a picture of a player and his potential. The team used this to help make decisions, and even since Luhnow’s departure have expanded its use. The database, which has long since dropped the name “Redbird Dog” to avoid publicizing it, and propriety algorithms are used to determine a monetary value for each player, and that single figure directs what the Cardinals have often described as a data-driven approach to decisions.

In March 2014, the Houston Chronicle ran an article detailing “Ground Control,” the database Luhnow and his staff, which included Mejdal, constructed for the Astros to analyze and predict talent. Bloomberg Business called “Ground Control” “the repository of the organization’s collective baseball knowledge.” The similarities between “Ground Control,” as described in the Chronicle story, and the Cardinals’ in-house database was not lost on the Cardinals, team officials said at the time.

Cardinals officials also expressed some frustration with the credit they believed Luhnow received for the team's success that included five postseason appearances during his time with the club and three since he left for Houston.

In June 2014, 10 months of the Astros’ internal emails and memos accessed through “Ground Control” appeared on a site for leaked or hacked information, Anonbin. Deadspin.com picked up the content and spread it to the masses, complete with internal views of players and some trade offers that didn’t gain traction.

Luhnow called other team officials to apologize for the breach.

Baseball announced and launched an inquiry into what was initially believed to be the act of an unrelated hacker.

Major League Baseball also notified the FBI.

Investigators, according to The Times, believe that Cardinals employees accessed a list of passwords Luhnow used while working for the club, and used that information to enter the Astros’ internal network. FBI agents traced the point of entry to a home shared by some Cardinals officials, confirmed by sources. Law enforcement officials turned then to the Cardinals’ front office.

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Manager Mike Matheny said he first learned of the investigation and the Times’ story on Tuesday morning, hours before the Cardinals played the Minnesota Twins. Other team officials and uniformed personnel were unaware of the allegations until Tuesday. Matheny said it would be his job to communicate with the players in the clubhouse and assure them their expectations — competing — haven’t changed or been deterred by something in the boardroom.

“Where we are right now is we don’t know any more than anybody else, and we’re just kind of waiting to hear from the front office that this is something that is going to be addressed soon,” Matheny said. “My job is to go in there and make sure these guys know that something’s going on. We don’t know how to react at all until we have information, so we don’t. The way to react is to prepare for a baseball game.”

The Cardinals won 3-2 on Tuesday to improve to 43-21, baseball’s best record.

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