In Cardinals matter, Manfred should learn from Goodell’s stumble with Spygate

There are parallels between Roger Goodell (left) and Spygate and Rob Manfred and the Cardinals case.

The parallels, while not exact, are significant enough to serve as a caveat for Rob Manfred.

New England Patriots owner Robert Kraft reportedly was a strong supporter of Roger Goodell for NFL commissioner. St. Louis Cardinals owner Bill DeWitt reportedly was a strong supporter of Manfred for baseball commissioner — the head of the search committee, in fact.

Goodell, in the view of many NFL owners, went too easy on the Patriots in Spygate, in which the team was caught videotaping an opposing sideline’s signals. Yes, the Patriots forfeited a draft pick and paid a $250,000 fine, and their coach, Bill Belichick, was fined $500,000. But Goodell reportedly ordered incriminating evidence destroyed. Rival owners perceived it to be a cover-up, because Kraft and Goodell were close.

Now here is Manfred, just starting his second year in office. Chris Correa, the Cardinals’ former scouting director, recently pleaded guilty to five counts of unauthorized access to a private computer — specifically, hacking into the network of a rival club, the Houston Astros. His sentencing hearing is scheduled for April 11.

Manfred cannot yet discipline the Cardinals — more information could emerge once the federal government completes its investigation, particularly if, as baseball officials expect, the government shares its findings with Major League Baseball. But once Manfred acts, rival owners are certain to scrutinize his decision, knowing of his bond with DeWitt.

Manfred addressed the issue in an interview with FOX Sports on Tuesday, saying that he would rule in the best interests of baseball, not the interest of any one owner.

“I have — and I’m glad I’ve had — a long and positive relationship with Bill DeWitt,” Manfred said. “But I also have had a long and positive relationship with a lot of other owners. He is by no means unique in any way. And quite frankly, although it has not been for as long, I have a really good relationship with [Astros owner] Jim Crane.

“I think what the owners expect me to do — regardless of what my relationship [with an owner] may or may not be personally — is do the right thing by the institution. That’s what I intend to do when I have all the facts about the Houston-St. Louis thing.

“Over the long haul, that is the only way you can survive in this job. You just have to do the right thing, what you think is the right thing. I think owners understand that it’s not personal. It’s protecting the institution.”

That, of course, is the correct approach, but Manfred knows first-hand how quickly owners can turn, how political they can be. The White Sox’s Jerry Reinsdorf led a coalition of owners who reportedly opposed Manfred’s election in August 2014, initially backing Red Sox chairman Tom Werner. Manfred, even with support from DeWitt, former commissioner Bud Selig and others, needed six rounds to get the required 23 votes out of 30 for election.

Selig’s greatest strength was building consensus, and Manfred in his first year seemingly has proven a worthy successor in that regard, engaging even those who previously opposed him. It is no easy trick keeping 30 ownerships content, especially when their interests do not always align. The upcoming labor negotiations will be perhaps the biggest challenge for Manfred in holding the owners together. But the hacking scandal amounts to an important test, too.

If rival owners perceive Manfred to be too lenient on the Cardinals, he could face the same problem that Goodell did after Spygate — a problem that, in the view of some, caused the NFL commissioner to overreact and discipline the Patriots excessively in Deflategate.

The NFL hired attorney Ted Wells to investigate the Patriots, who were accused of deflating footballs past a prescribed limit to satisfy the preferences of quarterback Tom Brady. The penalties administered by Goodell were severe: a $1 million fine, the loss of two draft picks and a four-game suspension for Brady, which later was overturned by a U.S. district judge.

The line from Spygate to Deflategate might not have been direct — Goodell also had drawn criticism for initially being too lenient with his punishment of Ray Rice, who had been accused of assaulting his then-fiancee. The NFL suspended Rice for two games, then indefinitely, essentially admitting its mistake.

Still, the lesson for Manfred is clear: A commissioner acts at his own peril if he goes easy on an owner who is widely perceived to be one of his allies.

It helps Manfred, perhaps, that the government is handling the investigation of the Cardinals. Baseball conducted its own probe of Biogenesis, an anti-aging clinic alleged to have supplied players with performance-enhancing drugs. But Manfred has said that in a hacking case, MLB cannot uncover the same type of information as the government without the benefit of subpoenas and warrants.

So, the process must play out.

Correa could provide the government with additional information in exchange for a lighter sentence; he faces up to five years of prison on each of the five counts, but the prosecution agreed to recommend that his terms be served concurrently.

Manfred would look foolish if he issued a relatively light penalty and the government later revealed that others in the organization were involved. He would look equally foolish if he issued a relatively harsh penalty and the government found that Correa was acting alone.

We already know an employee of one baseball team committed a federal crime against another MLB franchise, but at some point the extent of the Cardinals’ wrongdoing will become more apparent.

Then, and only then, can Manfred act. The facts will guide him. A close relationship with an owner cannot.