The case of compromised Houston Astros player intel is a federal investigation, not a baseball probe, says MLB Commissioner Rob Manfred.
That doesn’t mean he can’t hand down penalties as more information comes to light about whether St. Louis Cardinals employees hacked into a personnel database belonging to the Astros.
For decades, baseball’s leadership has handed out discipline to players and management figures for all sorts of reasons. But corporate espionage via computer is a fairly new threat to the game’s integrity, far different from offenses such as stealing pitching signs or using pine tar. There’s no real precedent that might indicate how baseball will handle this matter, and for now, Manfred seems content to let the criminal investigation lead the way.
Major League Baseball said it will evaluate additional steps once federal law enforcement officials complete their investigation. A person familiar with the investigation has told the AP that federal authorities are looking at whether the Cardinals were to blame for what Major League Baseball called a “breach” of the Astros database.
Laws that could apply in the situation include the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act and the Economic Espionage Act, said Chip Pitts, a law school lecturer at Stanford. Pitts said it’s important for authorities to determine if this was a case of stealing trade secrets, or if there were other motives for the possible breach.
With sports franchises becoming increasingly reliant on data and technology, Pitts said the criminal investigation could be an attempt to prevent a cyber war from breaking out, putting every team at risk. Any penalties, he said, would have a deterring effect.
“Criminal penalties in our society — and all societies around the world — have a greater social stigma,” Pitts said. “It is significant that we’re talking about criminal penalties.”
With a union that represents the players, baseball has a formal policy on things like drug suspensions. But when it comes to disciplining management employees, the commissioner has authority within baseball to take whatever action he deems appropriate.
New York Yankees owner George Steinbrenner was suspended 15 months after pleading guilty to conspiring to make illegal contributions to the re-election campaign of President Richard Nixon. The 1974 suspension came three months after the guilty plea.
Steinbrenner was also banned for 2 1/2 years, starting in 1990, for paying self-described gambler Howie Spira to obtain negative information on outfielder Dave Winfield. Spira served nearly 2 years in prison for extortion related to the scandal.
The issues in those cases were much different than what Manfred is facing now, though both involved legal investigations and proceedings.
Whether or not the investigation of the Cardinals results in criminal convictions, baseball’s big question may be whether anyone employed by the team compromised the sport’s competitive environment.
Although Manfred has deferred to law enforcement so far, Pitts said he suspects baseball is taking this issue very seriously.
“I’ll bet they’re starting to think about — how widespread is this problem?” he said.