One of the weirdest scandals in recent sports history is finally over. Major League Baseball has ordered the St. Louis Cardinals to send their first two 2017 draft picks and $2 million to the Houston Astros as compensation for former Cardinals scouting director Christopher Correa hacking the Astros’ internal database, Ground Control.
MLB’s directive comes on the heels of a flood of new information about the case, as Judge Lynn Hughes unsealed documents about the misdeeds that landed Correa in jail for 46 months on five counts of unauthorized access to a computer.
The Astros get two draft picks and the comfort of being vindicated by MLB, while the Cardinals avoid punishment that extends beyond the realm of inconvenience. Everyone goes home a winner — except the designated fall guy.
From a baseball perspective, the punishment looks rougher than it actually is. Losing your first two picks, particularly under MLB’s bonus cap system, does to a team’s draft what a hand grenade does to a washing machine. The Cardinals, however, didn’t have that nice of a washing machine to start. Because the Cardinals won 86 games last year, then signed qualified free-agent outfielder Dexter Fowler, they didn’t have a first-rounder, and they were going to pick relatively late in the second. So instead of losing two first-rounders, the Cardinals miss out on the no. 56 and no. 75 picks, along with about $1.8 million in bonus money to give to draft picks and the $2 million fine. St. Louis will now have to wait until pick no. 94 to make its first selection.
So the Cardinals’ already-crappy draft situation got a little crappier, and they have to fork over a rounding error’s worth of cash to a rival. It’s not great, but it could be worse.
Starting in January 2012, Correa accessed Ground Control 48 times, using five different people’s accounts, including Astros GM Jeff Luhnow’s. He also had access to the email account of Astros executive Sig Mejdal, whom Luhnow brought over from St. Louis when he took the Astros’ GM job in 2011. Rather than looking for information stolen from the Cardinals, as he originally claimed, Correa accessed internal trade discussions and scouting information on potential draft picks. Prosecutor Michael Chu has claimed that Correa also leaked the 10 months’ worth of Ground Control documents that eventually found their way to Deadspin.
Clearly, Correa’s actions gave the Cardinals a competitive advantage not only over the Astros but also over the 28 other teams that weren’t reading Mejdal’s emails at the time. He also embarrassed the Astros and Luhnow. Add in the personal privacy concerns of hacking Mejdal’s emails, and Correa deserved to go to prison.
However, though Correa’s crimes sound grandiose and sinister, the most important thing to remember about this story is how funny it is. It’s always been funny: There’s the irony of the Astros painting themselves as a hyper-rational, forward-thinking organization, then getting humiliated because Luhnow had a David Eckstein–related password; the Watergate parallels; and the sheer number of elite prospects whose names came up in Bud Norris trade talks. And now it emerges that this whole thing was motivated not by Correa’s desire to gain a competitive edge, but by his personal jealousy of Mejdal. The Best Breach in Baseball, or Teapot Astrodome, or whatever scandal pun you want to use, was so petty, so low-tech, so absurd, that it’s impossible to talk about it without laughing at everyone involved.
This isn’t House of Cards — this is Seinfeld.
Correa’s less than a year into his 46-month sentence, and when he gets out he’ll find himself on baseball’s permanently ineligible list. But while commissioner Rob Manfred brought down the hammer of justice on the Cardinals generally, Correa was the only individual to be sanctioned. That, specifically, is how it could’ve been worse.
Correa was a fairly high-ranking member of the Cardinals front office. It strains credulity to say that he not only never told his colleagues what he was doing, but sprinkled his stolen Astros tidbits in with the normal course of business so perfectly that nobody else suspected that something was up. Correa is getting hung out to dry so badly that Oliver North thinks he’s a stooge, and everyone left standing in the St. Louis front office, including GM John Mozeliak, ought to be thanking the baseball gods that Manfred was willing to buy the theory that Correa acted alone.