By all accounts, Jeff Luhnow is one of the nerds, a tech entrepreneur turned baseball front office wonk who “rankled co-workers with his distinctive ideas and sometimes questionable people skills,” according to Fox Sports’ Ken Rosenthal, who went on liken Luhnow to a “front-office version of Alex Rodriguez.”
In a way, then, it isn’t surprising that, of all the general managers to be targeted for corporate espionage, Luhnow would be the one. And here, I suppose, is where I should acknowledge the overarching gravity of this story, given the felonious nature of computer hacking, given that the FBI is involved, given that it seems very likely someone is going to wind up going to jail for this. But the fact that this story essentially follows a recent plotline from HBO’s satirical Silicon Valley tells me two things: A) Mike Judge is a genius, and Silicon Valley is the best comedy on television for a reason, and B) More than a decade into the Moneyball era, baseball is somehow still scrambling to figure out how the hell to reconcile with its own modernity.
Forget, for a moment, the rampant schadenfreude toward a Cardinals franchise that has long held itself as some paragon of aw-shucks, corn-fed Midwestern values. The larger issue here is that Luhnow pissed people off in St. Louis with his cold analytical outlook toward a sport that has been riven between the thinkers and the feelers ever since the Sabermetrics era took hold. And when Luhnow left to become the general manager of the Houston Astros, it would appear that at least one of those people in the Cardinals organization may have felt the need to publicly humiliate him – while at the same time tapping into his network in search of anything worthwhile, because, hell, that’s the era we live in now.
The beauty of this story is that it maintains elements of both old and new. The beauty of this story is that the cranks who refuse to acknowledge advanced statistics are the ones who tend to romanticize “analog” cheating in baseball, from Gaylord Perry rubbing up a baseball with everything short of Thousand Island dressing to the 1951 Giants stealing signs to win the pennant. The beauty of this story is that it may force baseball to confront its own recent hypocrisies, including the lingering notion among the feelers that steroid use is an unforgivable breach of ethics in a sport that has long redrawn its own ethical boundaries. But the beauty of this story, most of all, is that it may force baseball to confront the fact that the thinkers and the feelers need to leave their petty grievances behind for good.
What the Cardinals are alleged to have done here is way worse than anything that happened in the late 1990s. But it’s also an opportunity for the new baseball commissioner, Rob Manfred, who essentially admitted to The New York Times’ Tyler Kepner that the sport is entirely out of touch with a large swath of America. One thing baseball needs is a definitive reconciliation with itself. It needs to acknowledge the importance of numbers guys like Luhnow – who are unquestionably the dominant figures in front offices these days, which is why this breach happened in the first place, and why breaches like this may occur again in the future – while still acknowledging that it can maintain an emotional soul.
In a way, I think baseball is always going to fight against the notion of modernity; that’s part of its charm. But now would be a good time for the sport to grow up, at least a little bit, and stop turning into a satire of itself.
Michael Weinreb is the author of Season of Saturdays: A History of College Football in 14 Games. You can find him on Twitter @michaelweinreb