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The Cardinals did something really illegal for no good reason, and now they're in trouble

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The Cardinals committed the Holy Trinity of Being Bad At Cheating: They did something unimportant, they did it badly, and it carries a huge punishment.

Jasen Vinlove-USA TODAY Sports

The Cardinals apparently hacked the Astros' computer system, and the FBI is involved. What?

It seems wild. "Corporate hacking" is a term that implies something done on a large scale with extremely malicious intentions. Have the Cardinals been running a high-tech cheating ring, the most elaborate, malicious scheme in sports cheating history?

Not really. They did something dumb, and they did it for a pretty dumb reason.

The problem is that the dumb thing they did was illegal -- not, like, "the commissioner doesn't like it!" illegal, but rather "the government is coming to prosecute you" illegal -- and they could be in a ton of trouble.

The Cardinals didn't do any advanced computer hacking, and they didn't do a good job of it

It's not like the Cardinals have been employing a advanced team of computer wizards to spend 24 hours a day, seven days a week trying to infiltrate other teams. Basically, current Astros GM Jeff Luhnow, who worked for the Cardinals until 2011, set up a computer system for the Astros and used the same password he did with the Cardinals. From the New York Times article:

The intrusion did not appear to be sophisticated, the law enforcement officials said ... Investigators believe Cardinals officials, concerned that Mr. Luhnow had taken their idea and proprietary baseball information to the Astros, examined a master list of passwords used by Mr. Luhnow and the other officials who had joined the Astros when they worked for the Cardinals. The Cardinals officials are believed to have used those passwords to gain access to the Astros' network, law enforcement officials said.

Hey everybody: Use different passwords for things.

Because this wasn't done by advanced computer hackers, there was no attempt to hide: The FBI tracked the breach to a home inhabited by Cardinals' employees.

The Cardinals didn't have any good baseball reason to do this

It seems like the Cardinals undertook this measure less out of a desire to grab a competitive advantage and more out of a desire to embarrass an employee who decided to leave the organization. The Times says law enforcement officials believe the attack was perpetrated by "vengeful" employees looking to "wreak havoc" on Luhnow.

For most teams, the ability to look into the Astros' computer system, which has been lauded as an incredibly useful analytic tool, would have been a huge coup. But Luhnow had set up a similar one for the Cardinals, which is how they had the passwords in the first place. The most valuable thing the Cardinals could have discovered with this hacking was something they already had.

So far as we can tell, the information gleaned from the hacking wasn't massively important. The data that leaked consisted of details of trade talks. It was interesting from an outsider's perspective -- we found out the Marlins kinda maybe might have been shopping Giancarlo Stanton! -- but presumably, this is the type of information the Cardinals could have learned on their own as a result of also talking to other front offices.

I'm genuinely skeptical of the on-field advantage an MLB team could gain from even a very detailed peek into the day-to-day operations of one of the other 29 teams in the league. The Astros and Cardinals didn't even play each other in 2014 nor do they play in 2015. Beyond that, teams post their lineups before games, starting pitchers are scheduled out ahead of time, scouting reports are available on everybody.

If this were about competitive advantage, it would be a wider scale operation. It wasn't: It was about making people on another team look dumb because of a personal grudge.

The Cardinals did something highly, highly illegal

Let's break "illegal things sports teams do" into a few categories.

The first, most basic, is things done on the field that are outside of the scope of the rules that govern play. A hockey player commits a penalty. A soccer player touches the ball with his hand. Sometimes it's just the result of a sloppy play. Sometimes it's intentional. Sometimes, it's legitimately dirty. If it's particularly egregious, the player is suspended. Whatever happens, it's an on-field thing, there's an on-field punishment, and we move on.

A second level would be things done to gain a competitive advantage outside of what a sports league says is acceptable. Baseball players used steroids to grow bigger muscles. A Patriots' employee ran off with footballs and deflated them in a bathroom so they'd be easier for their players to handle. These infractions seem sleazier to us, because they're premeditated attempts to make the game easier for one team while everybody else tries to play by the rules. The league in question makes a ruling, and we call the team that committed the crime dirty.

What the Cards have done is a different level. It's not a problem because it's against the rules of play. It's not a problem because the league says it's a problem. It's a problem because the United States government says it's illegal. MLB isn't investigating them: the dang Federal Bureau of Investigation is. Independent investigators will not be looking into this like with Deflategate: the dang FBI will.

The thing about anti-hacking laws, as Craig Calcaterra was quick to point out, is they aren't particularly well-written laws. Technology moves really quickly, and lawmakers move very slowly. Corporate hacking is mainly governed by the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act, an incredibly vague law put on the books in 1984 that has been criticized for allowing prosecutors too much leeway to charge essentially whoever they like.

The Cardinals provide an excellent opportunity for the FBI to prove they are harsh on hackers: It's a high-profile target -- an MLB team! That'll get on the news! It's something that's definitely illegal -- you totally can't access another corporation's computer system without them letting you! The MLB has already dropped the word "alleged" when discussing the hacking incident, which Michael McCann notes is a sign they believe something illegal happened. And it seems like an open and shut case.

The Cardinals did something dumb for a dumb reason, and they could get in big trouble for it.

★★★

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