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Nightengale: For Cardinals, Stain Stings More Than Punishment for Hack

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Photo: Sports Illustrated

The St. Louis Cardinals’ long-awaited punishment Monday for their computer hacking scandal can’t possibly be judged by its monetary value, or even the loss of valuable draft picks.

Their $2 million fine won’t even buy you a utility infielder these days.

And the Cardinals’ forfeiture of their top two picks in the upcoming June draft were only the 56th and 75th picks, already sacrificing their first-round pick with the signing free-agent center fielder Dexter Fowler. The two picks, more important, will cost them $1.853 million in slot money they can no longer spend in the draft.

It all now goes to the Houston Astros, victims of the 2 ½-year computer espionage by the Cardinals’ former scouting director, Chris Correa.

No matter, the Cardinals, who now won’t have a draft pick until the 94th selection, and be limited to just $2.072 million in slot money, will survive.

And still thrive.

Their stadium will be packed again most every night with a sea of red, and they’ll be in the playoff hunt all year round like they are always are, with 12 playoff appearances, two World Series titles and four National League pennants since 2000.

The real collateral damage in the strongest punishment imposed against a team in Major League Baseball history is the Cardinals’ pristine reputation.

Yet, unlike the New England Patriots and quarterback Tom Brady, no Cardinals player was suspended. No Federal Appeals Court is needed. The Cardinals can still operate their franchise like always.

The only real villain in this scandal is Correa, the Cardinals’ former scouting director, who hacked into the Houston Astros’ internal computer database at least 48 times over 2 ½ years.

Correa joins Pete Rose in infamy and is banned for life from baseball.

Considering Correa is serving 46 months in federal prison, after pleading guilty last year to five counts of unauthorized access to a protected computer, he didn’t need his master’s degree to figure out he was never going to work in baseball again.

He may never need a computer again, considering the restrictions he’ll face for any future job employment.

Still, skeptics want to know whether it’s actually possible that Correa acted alone when he accessed the Astros’ proprietary information with such frequency, and didn’t tell a soul in the Cardinals’ organization.

Despite the years of work from the federal government’s investigation, along with Major League Baseball investigators, no one found evidence of any accomplices. Correa refused to cooperate with Major League Baseball, but unsealed court records showed that Correa kept “his intrusions a secret from his colleagues.”

Considering Correa’s harsh punishment, which includes paying the Astros $279,038.65 in restitution, wouldn’t he have coughed up some names to lighten his own sentence?

If Correa really had accomplices in this scandal, and didn’t squeal, this is baseball’s greatest act of courage and friendship since Greg Anderson, the former trainer who refused to testify against Barry Bonds in the BALCO scandal.

So, barring Correa changing his tune and singing while sitting in his prison cell, we’ve got to believe no one else was involved in the scandal.

If there were any evidence, or even strong suspicions there was knowledge of Correa’s dirty work among Cardinals employees, Cardinals owner Bill DeWitt would be holding a job fair this weekend at Busch Stadium.

“We respect the Commissioner’s decision and appreciate that there is now a final resolution to this matter,’’ DeWitt said in a statement. “Commissioner Manfred’s findings are fully consistent with our own investigation’s conclusion that this activity was isolated to a single individual.’’

Does DeWitt, a confidant of Manfred who led the MLB commissioner search committee to find a replacement for Bud Selig, perhaps get the benefit of the doubt?

Sure. DeWitt and his family have one of the finest reputations in the sport, running perhaps baseball’s model franchise. He has earned that trust.

If Manfred believed there was more than one person involved in this cyber espionage – in which the federal government discovered that Correa had “unfettered access’’ to the email account for Sig Mejdal, who leads the team’s baseball analytics department – he would have made the Cardinals forfeit their No. 1 pick every year until the town ran out of toasted ravioli. He could have ensured enough damage that the Cardinals would have to wait 108 years themselves for their next World Series title.

Really, as much as the Cardinals’ rivals would have loved to see a stiffer penalty, this was appropriate, particularly given the Astros are the beneficiaries.

The Astros not only get the Cardinals’ forfeited draft picks, but they get the $2 million that must be paid within 30 days.

If nothing else, the federal government and MLB’s punishment should scare the daylights out of any front office executive, computer analyst or even a summer intern, from daring to hack into another team’s data base.

“This unprecedented award by the Commissioner’s office,’’ Manfred said in a statement detailing his ruling, “sends a clear message of the severity of these actions.’’

It certainly reverberated throughout the offices on 700 Clark Street in St. Louis.

“This has been a long and challenging process for all of us,’’ Cardinals GM John Mozeliak said in a statement, “especially those within our baseball operations department. We have learned a great deal along the way, and we have taken additional steps to ensure that something like this doesn’t ever happen again.’’

It was a message that needed no password.

By Bob Nightengale

This article was republished with permission from the original publisher, USA Today. Follow Bob Nightengale on Twitter and Facebook

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