The real threat for Cardinals is how high investigation could reach

Every instance of corporate nefariousness ends with the same question: Just how high did it go? The FBI is investigating the St. Louis Cardinals for possibly breaching the Houston Astros’ computerized database and thieving information, as The New York Times first reported, and as the fallout of the accusations rocks the sport, the focus will turn to who knew what.

The story is ridiculous, titillating, a 2015 Zeitgeist special: The best franchise in baseball allegedly hacks a team that has lost 100 games in three consecutive seasons and steals scouting reports, trade talks and other proprietary data. Espionage in baseball previously had been limited to sign stealing. Now, the team whose owner, Bill DeWitt Jr., was in charge of the committee to choose the new commissioner and whose general manager, John Mozeliak, has built a scouting and player-development juggernaut is the target of an investigation into a serious federal crime.

As unseemly as the alleged episode feels, the true depths will be revealed once the public better understands the perpetrators. The report said multiple Cardinals officials are the targets of the investigation, though it suggested neither the levels of their involvement nor where they ranked in the hierarchy of the organization.

If this was simply the manifestation of rogue Cardinals analysts, $50,000-a-year guys rummaging through another team’s database for giggles, it’s more a black eye for the Cardinals than a gut shot. Of course, that presupposes that the low-level staffers not only stole the information from the Astros but didn’t reveal the hack to anybody else in the organization. Which is possible, yes, if not altogether likely.

Astros GM Jeff Luhnow, right, talks to Cardinals center fielder Jon Jay, left. (AP)
Astros GM Jeff Luhnow, right, talks to Cardinals center fielder Jon Jay, left. (AP)

The nightmare for the Cardinals would be if knowledge of the information reached higher levels. The second anybody in any position of power knew of the breach and did not report it to Major League Baseball or authorities, he or she not only would be helping cover up a crime but implicitly endorsing it by continuing to employ those under investigation, which the Cardinals still do.

One official familiar with the investigation told Yahoo Sports the FBI traced the breach back to a house in Jupiter, Fla., the city in which the Cardinals hold spring training. A number of Cardinals employees used the house, according to the official, perhaps complicating authorities' ability to pinpoint the alleged culprits. The assistant U.S. attorney handling the potential case in Houston is Michael Chu, whose areas of focus include computer hacking and intellectual property.

Should the allegations prove true and the brainchild of a higher-up official, the fallout would be immense. The idea of the Astros falling victim to a Cardinals-sanctioned skunkworks project would make Spygate look like an innocent home video, and MLB would have no choice but to hammer the organization with a penalty unlike any before seen.

The FBI’s investigation began last summer with the leaking of Astros trade talks to a website that allows users to post documents anonymously. The Astros looked into the situation immediately and understood it wasn’t an inside job. “There was no question there’d been a security breach into the database,” said a league source with knowledge of the situation.

Initially, the assumption was that it was a hacker having fun. While the Astros’ security wasn’t strong, the source said, the breach involved more than taking old passwords from Houston general manager Jeff Luhnow’s days as Cardinals farm director and inputting them into a website. The league worried about another data dump. “There was more out there,” the source said, that was not revealed publicly.

One working theory, according to the Times, was that Luhnow brought proprietary information from St. Louis to Houston when he was named GM in December 2011. That idea dovetails with the thought that it was a sanctioned operation, though one executive familiar with the Cardinals said, “I can’t see Mo being involved. It’s just too stupid.”

The whole episode is, frankly, particularly for the gain. The official familiar with the breach said the data stolen did provide insight to the Astros’ opinions on players and their trade talks but little that would necessarily prove substantive when it comes to competitiveness.

Luhnow was a polarizing figure during his time with the Cardinals and remains so years after leaving the organization for Houston, which he has turned into a playoff contender with a deep farm system. Risking all of what the Cardinals have built for a revenge plot seems silly, but then the entire situation reeks of ridiculousness. Cleveland and Tampa Bay and Boston and the Chicago Cubs and plenty of other teams have proprietary systems. Something allegedly made the woebegone Astros the Cardinals’ targets.

And for it, the organization stands on the precipice of pariahdom. This wouldn’t be cheating in the classic baseball sense. It would be a crime – a literal crime – borne of stupidity and hubris.

The Cardinals can only hope DeWitt, Mozeliak and others were insulated from whatever did happen. Otherwise, this real scandal – bigger than video cameras or deflated footballs – grows epic in nature. It wouldn’t sully what the Cardinals have done on the field, wouldn’t tarnish what they do on it going forward. It would simply show the Cardinal Way isn’t necessarily the right way.

More MLB coverage: