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St. Louis Cardinals may have broken new ground in hacking scandal

For as long as there's been professional baseball, there's been cheating. But the St. Louis Cardinals may have pushed that shady tradition to a whole new level.

For as long as there's been professional baseball, there's been cheating: From gambling and game-fixing to drug use, sign-stealing, and even a conspiracy among owners to avoid paying big salaries to stars.

But the St. Louis Cardinals may have pushed that shady tradition to a whole new level.

The Cardinals, one of baseball's most successful teams, are now under federal investigation for possibly breaching the Houston Astros' computer network andstealing internal discussions about trades, proprietary statistics and scouting reports.

That sort of tactic is common in the corporate world, and often leads to prison time. But, as far as anyone knows, cheating of that magnitude has never been carried out by a Major League Baseball team — or any American professional sports team, for that matter.

"This is something we see all the time in other industries, where you have very valuable information that is worth its while to obtain," said Roger Allan Ford, a University of New Hampshire law professor who researches intellectual property law, technology and economics.

Based on what little has been made public about the probe, Ford speculated that the activity under investigation could fall under any of three federal criminal statutes: wire fraud, computer hacking and theft of trade secrets. Depending on the law and how a prosecutor interprets it, the motive for obtaining the data, and how it is used, isn't necessarily important.

"That's why St. Louis may be in a lot of trouble here," Ford said.

The hacking probe seems, on its face, an unfortunate offshoot of baseball's "Moneyball" era, in which teams rely on Wall Street-style data analysis to evaluate players. The Cardinals are one of the teams that have excelled at that approach.

One of its key figures was an executive named Jeff Luhnow, who help devise a successful system of scouting reports and player information. Months after the Cardinals won the 2011 World Series, the Astros hired him as general manager, where he set up a similar system. The Astros, who two years ago were one of baseball's worst teams, are now in first place in the American League's Western Division.

The probe focuses on whether members of the Cardinals front office, perhaps believing that Luhnow had taken proprietary information with him, used some of his old passwords to access the Astros system, according to The New York Times,which broke the story Tuesday.

"As information becomes more central to how they conduct their business, it becomes more and more valuable, and the benefits of obtaining that data becomes greater," Ford said. "I don't know if that's what happened here, but it's definitely something where the incentive is there and as the industry moves in this direction, we could see more and more of these cases."

Joshua Price, who researches sports economics at Southern Utah University, said the tactic seems to be a modern version of what once was accomplished by simply hiring a rival's head scout. But the stakes are much higher now, with baseball's revenues soaring, particularly for the teams that consistently win — like the Cardinals.

But John Thorn, Major League Baseball's official historian, said he didn't see the unfolding scandal as a seedy outgrowth of the Moneyball era. He sees it as part of the sport's — and country's — colorful history of rule-breaking.

"There's plenty of precedent in baseball and American life of cheating and lying and chicanery of all sorts," Thorn said.

He pointed to the earliest days of professional baseball, in the late 1800s, when clubs often poached players from each other. That's how the Pittsburgh Pirates got their name, he said.

"Bad conduct, club to club, was legion," Thorn said.

The only difference now, Thorn said, is it is being done on a high-tech level.

To this day, he said, an old baseball aphorism still applies: "It's only cheating if you don't get away with it." 

This story originally appeared on NBC