Bob Johnson column June 19

It was so easy to make fun of those slimy, cheating New England Patriots.

This is going to be a whole lot more difficult. You see, it turns out that my favorite team — MLB’s St. Louis Cardinals — may be slimier. And that hurts.

The baseball franchise is the focus of an FBI investigation into allegations that St. Louis employees hacked into the Houston Astros’ computer system, stealing confidential information about player evaluations and moves. That raises corporate espionage charges to a disturbing level.

Forget New England’s spying on Jets’ practices and deflating footballs. What St. Louis did — if true — is in a different league entirely.

Federal agents and prosecutors are investigating whether Cardinals officials hacked into an Astros database that included secret information about trades, player statistics and prospect evaluations.

If you are a Cardinal fan, like me, you know how much this stings. St. Louis fans take pride in the integrity shown by their franchise, even through the gray Mark McGwire saga. Not anymore.

The alleged snooping began after the Cards’ 2011 World Series season, when staffer Jeff Luhnow left St. Louis to run the Houston franchise.

If true, the espionage was not just wrong, it was dumb. Houston had lost an astounding 324 games over the previous three seasons. Someone in the front office, it seems, was nonetheless concerned about what Luhnow was up to. The details are sparse and speculation rampant in this leaked story first reported Tuesday by The New York Times.

What seems certain, though, is that one of baseball’s pre-eminent franchises is in deep water.

Baseball is a game where cheating is part of folklore. Stolen signs, corked bats, pine tar, scuffed balls — those are all part of the game, something more akin to a slightly deflated football.

Make no mistake: This is not some quirk to be laughed off. It is not some fraternity prank. Corporate espionage is serious business. That may be why the FBI chose to look more closely.

This is no different than Google breaking into Apple’s computer to steal a trade secret. There are big stakes and big consequences.

This is not just another baseball franchise either. St. Louis is one of the sport’s most respected, making regular trips to the postseason since 2004 and currently holding the game’s best season record by a wide margin.

“This stuff has sent a shiver through one of the game’s most self-assured franchises.” St. Louis Post-Dispatch columnist Joe Strauss wrote in wondering about possible jail time. “Hiring a lawyer is part of the game in high-stakes politics. Now the prospect of mid-level front-office types seeking representation is real.”

Much will play out before definitive answers are learned. Then, Commissioner Rob Manfred will be faced with his first tough decision. Certainly, there will be consequences — dismissals, fines, penalties — beyond the real prospect of federal charges.

No matter how great those consequences, though, the damage has been done. Just as with the Patriots, there will be asterisk with every Cardinals win.

They got to the top, but how?

That is especially painful for me as a fan, one who has piled onto football teams doing far less egregious things.

I’ve got to look into the mirror, Cardinal hat in place, and admit it: The franchise that I admire the most is simply slimy.

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Bob Johnson is a sports correspondent for the Daily Journal.