Baseball hacking probe is MLB commissioner Manfred’s first big test

June 17, 2015, 7:45 PM UTC
Photograph by Michael S. Williamson — Washington Post/Getty Images

A baseball team hacking into another team’s player database? It makes trying to read an opposing manager’s lips for clues seem quaint.

The FBI is investigating whether the St. Louis Cardinals purposefully hacked the network of the Houston Astros. And you can trust that MLB commissioner Rob Manfred was not happy to receive this news.

According to an extensive report from the New York Times, the “hack” was surprisingly simple: investigators believe that front-office Cardinals officials, in an effort to get back at Jeff Luhnow, a former Cardinals executive who left to become GM of the Astros, tried his old password on the Astros’ fancy new internal database (“Ground Control”) and found that it worked. All parties involved were sloppy in their actions: Luhnow for recycling his password, Cardinals execs for enacting the breach from an easily-tracked home computer in Jupiter, Florida. The sports blog Deadspin summed it up with the headline: “Everyone involved in the Cardinals hacking scandal seems to be an idiot.”

This isn’t exactly a spat between storied rivals such as the Red Sox and Yankees. This isn’t the New England Patriots spying on the New York Jets. It’s a very good team, a perennial contender, bullying a team that, until this season, had not been good in a very long time—and doesn’t even compete in the same division. The Houston Astros left the NL for the AL West two seasons ago.

In other words, this might look like a rather silly scandal. But make no mistake: this is very bad for baseball.

It’s bad because the wrongdoer is a team that is arguably the gem of the MLB, or at least one its gems: the Cards have captured the National League pennant twice in the last four years (2011, 2013) and won the World Series twice in the last nine (2006, 2011). It’s bad because the Cards are, once again, very good this season: the team has the best record in the MLB, sits atop the NL Central, and the Pirates, second place in that division, are six games behind. It’s bad because the MLB was just finally getting past a seemingly endless steroid crisis—Alex Rodriguez, after missing a season for PED use, is back, and no other big star has been suspended for steroids since Nelson Cruz, Miguel Tejada, and others were all busted in the summer of 2013 (yes, Ervin Santana was suspended this year, but the news didn’t create the same shock waves). It’s bad because if the Cardinals did this, even if the team didn’t gain much of a competitive advantage over anyone but the Astros, it amounts to cheating.

In a time when baseball, as a form of entertainment, is criticized more and more each year for moving too slowly, and when attendance at many ballparks is down, baseball didn’t need a new problem. But now it has one.

All of this adds up to Rob Manfred’s first real test in his inaugural season as MLB’s top dog. Manfred, a lawyer by trade, joined MLB almost two decades ago and was Bud Selig’s longtime righthand man. He became COO of the league in 2013, then commissioner in February. He already had a thorny job ahead of him even without worrying about one team hacking another: make baseball relevant again to young folks, particularly millennials, the generation so desirable to brands, marketers, leagues, and all walks of media and entertainment properties these days.

The commissioners of the other two major American sports leagues have faced similar challenges recently. NBA Commissioner Adam Silver, in his own debut in 2014, faced a crisis some three months into the season—almost exactly the same point at which the Cardinals-Astros hacking fiasco is happening in the baseball season. Donald Sterling, the owner of the L.A. Clippers, was caught on tape making racist remarks about his players. Everyone knows the rest of this story by now: Silver fined Sterling $2.5 million, banned him from the league for life, then helped Sterling’s wife sell the team to former Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer. It was a major P.R. win for Silver, who came out of it looking like a fast-acting, smart, bold new leader for basketball. (There’s a reason Silver landed on our World’s Greatest Leaders list this year.)

More recently, and in sharp contrast, NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell (not in his first year, but his ninth) dealt with arguably the worst scandal the NFL has ever faced: in a single season, a number of different players faced legal trouble for domestic violence, and two of them—Ray Rice and Adrian Peterson—were charged in cases that became national news. The NFL would like to move on, and many fans have, but the stink from the fiasco lingers, and now the NFL is embroiled in yet another scandal, over whether the New England Patriots knowingly deflated footballs, that is also being partially blamed on Goodell and the league.

In fact, fans and pundits were quick to make Goodell jokes the moment that the Cardinals-Astros news broke, despite the fact that this baseball probe has nothing to do with football. It’s a reminder that the NFL’s very bad year has turned it, and its chief, into something of a crisis-management joke that everyone still finds funny:

Goodell didn’t quite handle his scandal properly; Silver handled his with great success. How Manfred handles his first nightmare will have a great impact on his as-yet-uncertain reputation with fans and the media. Can he turn this hacking fiasco into his own Adam Silver moment?

Manfred has already been praised for being an agent of change: he instituted pitch clocks meant to cut down the length of games, and he has mentioned further hypothetical changes that include shortening the season, bringing a stadium and team back to Montreal, and modernizing the corporate structure. An extensive profile in New York magazine noted that Manfred, “has the owners unified in a fashion similar to Selig.”

For starters, if the FBI investigation confirms the allegations against the Cardinals, Manfred ought to determine a punishment swiftly—speed and certainty is the key. Making one hasty ruling, then reversing it and tweaking it, is what made Goodell look inept in the wake of the Ray Rice case; as more video footage leaked, he had to adjust his ruling and make Rice’s punishment more severe. Whether Manfred is lenient or tough on the Cardinals, he must be decisive either way.

Once the result is out and Manfred makes a ruling, he can take another page from Silver’s book: keep going. In the wake of his moment of glory after the Donald Sterling scandal, Adam Silver didn’t rest on his laurels. He continued to make clear his determination to improve the league. He revealed his interest in shortening the preseason to lessen the strain on players, and adjusting the NBA Playoffs to fix the problem of imbalance between conferences. Most notably, he penned a much-lauded op-ed in the Times that advocated for a form of legalized sports betting.

Rob Manfred would do well to use this hacking scandal to his advantage — as an opportunity to make a statement.

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