Sign-stealing enters information age as FBI probes Cardinals' alleged hacking

The St. Louis Cardinals like to think of themselves as paragons of virtue and traditionalism with their emphasis on doing things the "Cardinal Way," so it's no surprise that Tuesday's New York Times report of an alleged hacking scandal involving the Houston Astros is already generating some snark in baseball circles.

It's not quite the caliber of schadenfreude that Miami Marlins owner Jeffrey Loria encounters whenever he's in the news. But rest assured, you'll find a few people willing to weigh in on the damage this story might be doing to the Cardinals' brand. And the celebrants aren't all located in Chicago or Cincinnati.

"Gussie Busch must be rolling over in his grave," said one MLB scout, in reference to the Cardinals' revered late owner.

So much for the vicarious thrills. Cardinal-bashers might want to refrain from the high-fives, because they could be next. And in the grand scheme of things, the ramifications of tapping into another team's database are a lot greater than the edge provided by deflating footballs.

As baseball enters a new and more sophisticated information age, teams pride themselves on their ability to crack codes and gain minute advantages in the quest to win. Just try asking an MLB executive about his team's computerized data on defensive metrics or shifts and watch the color drain from his face. The average MLB computer/stats savant guards his team's proprietary information as if the fate of Western civilization is at stake.

Corporate espionage is corporate espionage, whether it's Coke vs. Pepsi, McDonald's vs. Burger King, or two MLB teams that haven't had much of a rivalry since Albert Pujols took Brad Lidge deep in the 2005 National League Championship Series. Baseball is a $9 billion business, and if the Cardinals or any other team can gain an advantage over the Astros (or any other team), there's going to be a temptation to try.

It's worth noting that the federal investigation is ongoing. The commissioner's office and the Cardinals both released statements confirming that they're cooperating and have nothing further to add. Michael Schmidt, the Times reporter who broke the story, told ESPN's SportsCenter that he believes MLB will wait until the Justice Department and the FBI complete their investigation and see if charges are filed before taking disciplinary action.

In short, we have no idea how high this may go, or who's culpable, or if it will result in any significant findings at all.

But in the immediate aftermath, the shock from the Times story had to send a chill through franchises in all professional sports. At the very least, it's going to steer the conversation away from the other big MLB issue of national import -- the potential travesty of Kansas City Royals second baseman Omar Infante making the American League All-Star team.

Ultimately, the issue comes down to what's morally acceptable in a competitive landscape. Baseball has always had a love-hate relationship with sign-stealing, which is so often characterized as "crafty" or enterprising on the part of the stealer. If you don't like a team stealing your signs, baseball old-schoolers say, then do a better job concealing them. Or even better yet, change them. The act of appropriating signs with a telescope from center field -- as the New York Giants did during their historic comeback against the Brooklyn Dodgers in 1951 -- crossed the line to flat-out cheating. And tapping into another franchise's computer base, as the Cardinals are alleged to have done, is a new-age baseball transgression that crosses yet another barrier to sinister and Orwellian.

Amid the knee-jerk temptation to pontificate, everyone will have to be content with sitting back and waiting for the FBI investigation to play out. The Cardinals deserve the presumption of innocence until proven guilty. But the 2015 baseball season definitely just got a lot more intriguing.