Friday, June 19, 2015

Hack'n'Slush

"Now batting for the St. Louis Cardinals, Number One..."
Players aren't the only ones that cheat. Organizations cheat all the time. The Patriots - dear God, let's not talk about the Patriots. The New York Giants stole signs all the way to Bobby Thompson's home run off Ralph Branca. George Toma was a master of turning the Kansas City baselines into either racetrack or swamp, depending on whom the Royals were playing. Branch Rickey spun off forty-zillion farm clubs so he could sign all the talent and have it rot away in the minors rather than let anyone else have it.


So in one sense, what the Cardinals allegedly did by hacking the Astros is nothing new. In another sense, it's very new, because this sort of interstate computer skullduggery is exactly the sort of thing the Feds take very seriously, largely because if they nail the Cardinals' hide to the wall here, it sets up a lovely precedent for when they go after Goldman Sachs should they be so inclined. And has been pointed out elsewhere, the Feds are not inclined to play nice when it comes to baseball, largely because nailing baseball's hide to the wall is the sort of high-PR low-risk move they're hungry for. See also: Barry Bonds, trial of.


That being said, the Cardinals and the Astros are two of the most computer savvy organizations around, and it's a little surprising Houston was breached that easily. I mean, you can imagine someone hacking the Phillies and uncovering a three terabyte folder of cat .gifs and the AOL installer executable where the scouting reports should be. You can imagine someone trying to hack the Marlins and discovering that they're still using the computers Jeffty Loria stole from the Expos back in 2002, complete with Windows 2000. You can even imagine someone trying to hack the A's and discovering the team's actually being run by SKYNET. But one would expect the Astros to take better care of their data. Or at least change their passwords once in a while.

If you think about it a little, this story's not actually too surprising (except for the bits where this is actually a major serious crime-type thingie and people are liable to go to jail). The Astros pillaged the Cardinals' front office to build their own, which could have created some hard feelings. Throw in the fact that Astros management is playing right into quaint quant stereotype by demonstrating, shall we say, sub-optimal people skills (ask Bo Porter, or Brady Aiken, or Jacob Nix, or...) and certain folks still with the Cardinals might well have had motivation to make those Astros folks look bad. (And look bad they surely did when all those would-be-laughed-out-of-your-fantasy-league trade spitball emails got leaked). Alternately, there might have been concern that former Cards exec Jeff Luhnow had taken proprietary data or methods with him when he went to the Astros, and the "hack" (I love how anything anyone does with computers that's more complicated than playing Clash of Clans is described by certain elements of the mainstream media as "hacking") was a check to see if that stuff was there to be found. And of course, the source of the hack was a shared house used by multiple Cards employees during spring training (hint for all you would-be Neos: don't do illegal crap from your easily traced home IP). So the intrigue, it will swirl for a while yet.

The mainstream types appear to have decided that this somehow means that everything the Cardinals have ever accomplished is now suspect, because what some drunk IT wonk did during spring training somehow retroactively taints Dizzy Dean and Stan Musial. It's sadly par for the course, compounded by the way ESPN legal beagle Lester Munson (whom I can only assume still has a job at the worldwide leader because someone keeps thinking his first name is Thurman) managed to completely bungle his analysis of the case. What they're all missing, of course, is that beyond the amusement factor, this case is important. More and more, sports decision making is driven by data. The precedent established here will have plenty of repercussions down the line the next time there's a data hack, or someone messes with in-game data collection, or jams in-game access to needed databases, or, well, the possibilities are limitless...and most likely, inevitable.

And just because this case is goofy as hell doesn't mean it's not also the first step down that road. Give it time.

Oh, and give Bill Belichick a few black hats to work with, and the Patriots will replace every other team in the NFL's playbook with copies of 50 Shades of Gray.


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