Chris Correa’s 46-month sentence is a wake-up call to baseball

Chris Correa was sentenced to nearly four years in jail for hacking the Houston Astros' player personnel database. (AP Photo/Bob Levey)
Chris Correa was sentenced to nearly four years in jail for hacking the Astros’ personnel database. (AP)

The baseball world exists inside a bubble of its own making. In it, 20-something men make billions of dollars because they’re extraordinarily talented at a game and general managers run teams like CEOs who happen to oversee a game and managers give life-and-death treatment to the decisions they make in a game and quantitative analysts whose talents would be better served in just about any other facet of life choose instead to devote themselves to a game. The zeal is unbreakable, the fiefdom larger than ever and the myopia both. It’s why Monday struck baseball with such a wallop. One of its own is going to jail for almost four years, all for a game.

OK, that’s an oversimplification. Chris Correa, former St. Louis Cardinals scouting director, rising star in the industry, the sort of guy who would’ve been a general manager within the next decade, is now a federal felon because of anger and vengeance and stupidity and law-breaking inspired by a game. The sentence handed down in a Houston courthouse Monday – 46 months in federal prison after Correa pleading guilty to five counts of illegally accessing the Houston Astros’ proprietary database – was a pinprick to the bubble, an illusion-shattering reminder that the game isn’t just a game but an entity that exists in jurisdictions outside of its own making.

What the rest of the world called a hack – Correa going into the Ground Control database 60 times by using passwords from former Cardinals colleagues, including Astros general manager Jeff Luhnow, and looking at everything from draft information to trade talks – the baseball world viewed as a betrayal. And by the St. Louis Cardinals, a model franchise, no less. That’s the lens through which the game saw this, until 46 months snapped so many to the truth: Correa engaged in corporate espionage, and he said he wasn’t the only one who knew.

And that is where it gets truly interesting. Major League Baseball has held off on disciplining the Cardinals, citing Correa’s ongoing trial. That ended as of Monday. At the All-Star Game, when asked about potential discipline, commissioner Rob Manfred said: “To date, there has been no implication that this was an organizational problem but there has been an indication that it was one employee, did something inappropriate, the organization found out about it and fired the employee.”

This does not jibe with the story Correa told Judge Lynn N. Hughes when he pleaded guilty in January. In the midst of a conversation about the value of the information accessed from Houston’s database ($1.7 million) and the restitution Correa will pay (more than $279,000), Hughes pivoted to whether Correa found Cardinals information in Ground Control. Correa said he did.

“Who did you tell?” Hughes said, according to a transcript of Correa’s re-arraignment hearing.

“Colleagues,” Correa said.

“At the Cardinals?” Hughes said.

“Yeah,” Correa said.

Hughes did not push. Correa did not name names, at least not in any publicly available records (a number of documents in the case remain under seal). The admission nevertheless should be damning for the Cardinals. Even if Correa was a so-called lone wolf in accessing the database, the knowledge of it by others at any level, whether superiors or subordinates, means they actively chose to allow a crime to continue rather than take appropriate steps to prevent it in the future. It doesn’t make them complicit. Just grossly irresponsible.

To the court, this was an open-and-shut case: an investigation, a conclusion, a guilty plea, a sentencing. In the baseball world, it is so much more: an assault on the bedrock of modern baseball, information; a lesson on the gray area of proprietary products; literally, a direct attack of one team on another. Correa said he originally accessed Ground Control to see if the Astros had stolen information from the Cardinals. He ended up treating it like a message-board lurker, checking back every so often to see the latest, and not coincidentally around vital times like the trade deadline and draft.

“I behaved shamefully,” Correa said at his sentencing, and Hughes certainly agreed. He spoke down to Correa much as he’d done six months earlier during his guilty plea. This time, Hughes accused Correa of essentially adding zeroes to a check, of justifying his actions like a school-aged kid who blamed someone else – and, saddest of all, of taking prescription drugs without a prescription in the time since he was indicted.

Correa will report to prison sometime in the next six weeks. In the meantime, Manfred will unleash baseball’s Department of Investigations to render charges and will deliver his punishment in baseball’s dominion. It matters not how much the Cardinals cooperate, as they said they will, but that Chris Correa was a representative of the Cardinals, and they’re accountable for his actions that concern the game.

When the sanctions come, whether it’s millions of dollars in fines, the loss of first-round draft picks or both, there will be another ripple in the bubble, a reminder that consequences exist inside of it, too. It’s worth remembering, especially when coupled with Monday, a sad day for baseball that devolved into something even more grim: the destruction of a man, all because of ego and hubris and a damn game.