The St. Louis Cardinals have been to the World Series twice in the past four years, and the two seasons that didn’t end with the team at least winning the pennant saw them make deep playoff runs. That stands in strong contrast to the Astros, who haven’t sniffed a winning season since 2008. Which means that the fact that the Cardinals remain atop Major League Baseball’s standings shouldn’t surprise anybody, while the surging Astros—who even after a mid-June slump remain in first place in the AL West—are one of baseball’s most unlikely stories. 

In other words, if you had to guess which team was being investigated by the FBI for hacking secure databases and stealing secrets from the other, you’d be forgiven if you cast your glance toward Houston. But that’s not the story making headlines right now. Turns out, the 2014 release of ten months of internal trade talks from the Astros organization has resulted in an investigation, and the arrow seems to be pointing to the Cardinals. As the New York Times reports: 

Front-office personnel for the St. Louis Cardinals, one of the most successful teams in baseball over the past two decades, are under investigation by the F.B.I. and Justice Department prosecutors, accused of hacking into an internal network of the Houston Astros to steal closely guarded information about players.

Investigators have uncovered evidence that Cardinals employees broke into a network of the Astros that housed special databases the team had built, law enforcement officials said. Internal discussions about trades, proprietary statistics and scouting reports were compromised, said the officials, who were not authorized to discuss a continuing investigation.

The officials did not say which employees were the focus of the investigation or whether the team’s highest-ranking officials were aware of the hacking or authorized it. The investigation is being led by the F.B.I.’s Houston field office and has progressed to the point that subpoenas have been served on the Cardinals and Major League Baseball for electronic correspondence.

The Astros’ surprising turnaround this season has fed a narrative that maybe the Cards wanted access to the team’s “Ground Control” database of player information—Deadspin called it a marvel, an easy-to-use interface giving executives instant access to player statistics, video, and communications with other front offices around baseball,” before lamenting its need for better password protections. The Houston Chronicle noted the risks it posed to the integrity of the game, especially after a high-profile cheating scandal in the NFL and the FIFA mess have already made fans suspicious: 

Coming at a time of increased discussion about ethical behavior in sports, from improperly deflated footballs in the NFL to possible payoffs in international soccer, Tuesday’s disclosures were viewed as another indication some figures in sports are becoming less than sportsmanlike in their attitude toward competitors.

“Sports have been corrupted—so much money and so much pressure,” said Don Beck, director of the National Values Center in Denton. “It’s industrial espionage, like when Coca-Cola would steal from Pepsi. … It’s a sad state of affairs in baseball. That’s America’s pastime. It goes across the grain of our ethical system.”

NBC’s HardBallTalk, meanwhile, compared the violation to “corporate espionage”:

Teams scout each other. Teams hire former members of other organizations. Intelligence is probably a pretty underreported part of what goes on inside baseball. But hacking someone else’s computer system is illegal and way, way beyond anything we’ve seen in baseball before. Maybe beyond anything we’ve seen in professional sports. As the Times report says, this is nothing short of corporate espionage for which people may be arrested and prosecuted.

If this was some rogue in the lower level of the analytics department it may be one relatively small thing. If this went higher than that and was something people in Cardinals management knew about, it could be one of the biggest scandals baseball has ever seen.

The idea of the best team in baseball hacking its rivals in order to gain a competitive advantage is pretty delicious, especially if you’re into schadenfreude, but other sources suggest that the real motive may have had less to do with taking a peek at what the Astros are doing with Ground Control and their internal scouting and trade talks, and more to do with a personal vendetta. Sports Illustrated suggests that the real reason the Cards were looking into the Astros’ system was tied to former Cardinals exec Jeff Luhnow, now the GM in Houston.

But here’s what is so fascinating and new about someone breaking into the data base of the Astros: The motivation seems based more on causing public embarrassment to Houston general manager and former Cardinals executive Jeff Luhnow than on gaining any competitive leverage. It’s one thing to steal information. It’s quite another to leak that information and share it with the world, as was done last year, rather than use it surreptitiously.

“The motivation, especially having the information published, seems to have been to embarrass him,” said a source familiar with the investigation.

Said one baseball source not familiar with the investigation, “There are people with the Cardinals who think Luhnow took credit for a lot of the things St. Louis has been doing for years. It wouldn’t be surprising that any chance they would have to embarrass him, they would take it.”

That’s a fascinating claim, although it’s unclear what’s so embarrassing about the fact that, say, the Astros fielded calls from the White Sox regarding catcher Jason Castro. It might be awkward to have your internal discussions leaked to Deadspin, sure, but if those discussions are straight-up baseball discussions, who really cares? The news of the Astros made minor waves last summer, but it’s not like they found any dirt in the proceedings. What they found, ultimately, only had value in baseball terms.

Which suggests that there may be an element of wagon-circling going on among the sources that SI is talking to now. The idea that some low-level scouts in the Cardinals organization sought revenge on a boss they think took credit he didn’t deserve is a plausible enough explanation that stops the buck way at the bottom, and doesn’t put an asterisk next to the 2015 Cardinals’ record, as they seek another World Series championship. If your motive is to get back at a jerk boss, is it really cheating? 

Major League Baseball would also do well to have that revenge motive pinned to whichever party is eventually found to be responsible, as it would help the league avoid a DeflateGate-like scandal, something that a league whose recent history is still wracked by steroid investigations and allegations would presumably prefer to avoid. The sabermetrics era has been good for the game, generally, but that takes a dark turn if those advanced statistics are being pilfered from each other by unscrupulous executives and scouts. 

Ultimately, though, this isn’t really a baseball story, which makes polls like the one the Chronicle runs along with its story about what punishment people would like to see handed down superfluous. Asking if fines against the organization, lifetime bans for the guilty parties, or postseason restrictions against the team are the right way to handle this is a silly question. The FBI is on the case, and the penalty for the hack is likely to be federal prison time, not a fine against the team. The motives of the hackers are going to come out under penalty of perjury (or of charges of making false statements to a federal officer), not via internal investigations, which means that spinning this one away may end up being a lot more complicated than a Friday afternoon press release and a sad day at the publicist’s office for team officials. 

(Photograph by Alexandre Dulaunoy, via Flickr)