WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Cheating in baseball has been a tradition since the days of Ty Cobb and Babe Ruth - generations before Major League Baseball confirmed that the St. Louis Cardinals are being investigated for possibly hacking in to the computers of the Houston Astros.
The practice has been romanticized because of the many uncomplicated - and often hilarious - ways to beat the system, whether by using a telescope from the center field stands to steal a catcher’s signs or filling a bat with cork to hit the ball out of the stratosphere.
The late Joe Niekro had so many ways to scuff a ball illegally that the former pitcher used to go on late-night talk shows carrying a sander and wearing a tool belt to laugh about his antics.
When he would get caught hiding an emery board on the mound - rubbing it against a baseball makes it do crazy things - it was perceived by many as a comical cat-and-mouse game with umpires.
But cheating in the 21st century may have taken a more sophisticated turn on Tuesday when news broke that the FBI and the Justice Department were probing the Cardinals for possibly breaking in to the Astros’ proprietary database network.
“This is old wine in new bottles,” said MLB’s official historian, John Thorn. “The new bottle is digital technology. But the old wine is the impulse to cheat or stretch the rules for personal or corporate advantage.”
According to the New York Times, which broke the story, St. Louis personnel might have hacked in to the Astros’ system to undermine the work of Houston General Manager Jeff Luhnow, who left the Cardinals to work for the Astros after the 2011 season.
Luhnow created the same type of computer system in Houston as he had in St. Louis, and authorities believe Cardinals workers may have gone trolling into the Astros’ computers and found some of the same passwords to gain access.
Alexander Southwell, co-chair of the privacy, cybersecurity and consumer protection practice at Gibson Dunn & Crutcher law firm, said this type of cheating goes beyond the 10-game suspension Niekro received for his emery-board shenanigans.
“This is really a classic case of corporate espionage,” said Southwell, a former federal prosecutor. “This is an outgrowth of a desire to compete. When you are accessing somebody’s computer system without authorization, that violates federal and possible state law. That goes beyond healthy competition.”
The Cardinals said on Wednesday they are determined to get to the bottom of the allegations. “These are serious allegations that don’t reflect who we are as an organization,” said Cardinals Chairman William DeWitt Jr. “If anyone within our organization is determined to be involved in anything inappropriate, they will be held accountable.”
Southwell said there “is no difference” between the Cardinals’ alleged hacking and the stealing of information between, say, rival aerospace firms.
He said the allegations, if proven, would likely fall under the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act and carry a maximum of five years in jail. Southwell said a judge would probably look at what the perpetrators did with the information, whether they destroyed it or used it for their advantage.
“This incident will cause all professional teams to evaluate their information security practices,” he said.
Thorn said “baseball, our national pastime, reflects who we are as a people for better and for worse.”
“There’s plenty of cheating and skullduggery and trying to take advantage of a situation,” he said. “Baseball is played by humans. And run by humans. And managed by humans.”
Cheating by taking steroids has been taken seriously by Hall of Fame voters but doctoring baseballs by legendary former pitchers like Gaylord Perry or Whitey Ford was not.
Perry had so much junk on the ball it was sometimes hard for catchers to toss it back to him. Ford would use his wedding ring to cut the ball and often planted mud pies around the mound to slap on the ball.
Placing a foreign substance on the ball is against MLB rules.
Thorn said the Cardinals’ alleged computer hacking “is beyond Perry and Ford, whose cheating was acknowledged and nobody moved to bounce them out of the Hall of Fame.”
Ford later confirmed his use of the mud balls when his New York Yankees faced the Los Angeles Dodgers in the 1963 World Series.
“I used enough mud to build a dam,” he said.
(This story has been refiled to fix typo in paragraph 10, changes “or” to “of”)
Editing by Matthew Lewis