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This is a story about medical records. Boring, right? Charts and documentation and, gah, as long as we’re on the subject of medication, just give me an Ambien, would you? Before you swill it, just understand: This is also a story about a misguided plan, a story about twisted ethics, a story about missed opportunity and, more than anything, a story about the burgeoning information wars burbling inside Major League Baseball and once again roiling its foundation.
On Thursday afternoon, MLB suspended San Diego Padres general manager A.J. Preller for 30 days, one of the harshest penalties ever handed to a sitting GM. It was also a dainty slap on the wrist. Because what the Padres did, under Preller’s purview, was disturb a fundamental piece of the game and ignore a rule as sacrosanct as any.
Romanticized though deceit may be in baseball, teams have their line, and it is medical records. Ballclubs lose more than half a billion dollars every year to injuries, and they have zero insight into the true health of those outside their organization. So it isn’t just a desire for other teams to share a player’s full medical history – down to the very last Celebrex he popped – when discussing a trade. It is an expectation, absolute and without compromise.
The Padres, two league sources confirmed to Yahoo Sports, routinely withheld pertinent medical information from trade partners this July. The most disturbing part of the ESPN report that alleged the Padres designed a system in which medical records of players would fall into two distinct buckets – one to share with other teams and another, with far more details, for internal use – was the impetus behind it: Obscure the true nature of players’ health to gain an advantage in trades.
One case, with pitcher Colin Rea, was egregious enough that the Padres took him back even after he hurt his ulnar collateral ligament, an injury that could eventually lead to Tommy John surgery, returning prospect Luis Castillo to the Miami Marlins. Another, with pitcher Drew Pomeranz going to Boston for top prospect Anderson Espinoza, birthed the investigation that led to Preller’s suspension. There were other cases, too, in which the Padres only included the information of a player’s treatment when on the disabled list, according to ESPN. Routine maintenance – like the use of powerful anti-inflammatories – was withheld, to be revealed only when the traded players informed their new athletic trainers of their history.
This violation wasn’t nearly as titillating as the last battleground of the game’s info wars, which led to a federal prison sentence of nearly four years. In July, just four days after the Pomeranz trade, former St. Louis Cardinals scouting director Chris Correa pleaded guilty to illegally breaking into the Houston Astros’ proprietary database and accessing information. Inside the game, front offices fretted at the rapid evolution from a game with too little information to one saturated with it to one where its value was so apparent it incited federal crimes.
While the Padres broke no laws, their case bears a striking resemblance to the Cardinals’ hacking, only in the inverse: Rather than gain an advantage by acquiring information, San Diego did so by omitting it. If, as ESPN reported, the Padres did so to gain an advantage, it is every bit as ethically repugnant as Correa’s deeds and potentially even more costly. The value of the information accessed by Correa was pegged at $1.7 million. The value of players like Pomeranz and Rea, and the difference in both when healthy vs. hurt, is almost certainly more, especially when Pomeranz himself is estimated to be worth more than $20 million this season alone.
Preller and the Padres both played ignorant in statements released Thursday afternoon, positions that strain credulity. If there was “no intent on the part of A.J. Preller or other members of our baseball operations staff to mislead other clubs,” as the Padres suggested in their statement, then what was their rationale behind misleading other clubs? If “there was no malicious intent on the part of me, or anyone on my staff, to conceal information,” Preller said in his statement, then why, exactly, did he conceal information?
This is what makes Preller’s punishment so frightening: Not only is it paltry – the last two weeks of September and first two weeks of October for a non-playoff GM are among the least busy times of a job that churns year-round – but it sets a terribly low threshold for future attempts at information manipulation. Baseball had a chance to make an example of an organization. Instead, San Diego escaped without a fine or loss of draft picks, something that bodes well for the Cardinals, because even if their case generated more headlines, their deed and the Padres’ are close enough in intent to warrant a similar discipline.
San Diego escapes with a sore wrist and a black eye, both of which heal quickly. Preller’s reputation is shot – it wasn’t ever great, with a month-long suspension for scouting improprieties while with the Texas Rangers along with a reprimand a year ago for an illegal workout in Aruba – but he’s still one of 30 GMs, and few, if any, executives will allow scruples to get in the way of a good deal.
Baseball teams live on a morality curve, and the Padres now are the second ones known to have reached its nadir. There will be more. The desire to win is too strong, the pull of a World Series ring so elemental it’s like it was forged in the fires of Mount Doom. If the sport’s greatest currency is information, it will be the target of the next illicit maneuver, too.
In what form? Well, let’s put it this way: Never could anyone have imagined a team breaking into another’s computer system, nor a team withholding significant data upon the exchange of medical information. Technology offers plenty of options and ingenuity even more. It’s merely a matter of acting on them, of listening to the most basic instincts and giving in. The Cardinals did. The Padres did. And the information wars show no sign of abating anytime soon, especially when the punishment almost makes engaging in them worth it.
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