Batting for the Nationals
A utility player relishes her role in the team's front office.
Harolyn Cardozo grew up in Chevy Chase rooting for the Baltimore Orioles. Her father had season tickets, and she made the pilgrimage several dozen times a year to old Memorial Stadium.
“I remember watching the World Series in the hospital when one of my kids was born,” she says. “I remember not wanting to go home because I had this nice TV and I could watch baseball. I loved the Orioles; that was all we had. I still have a hard time when we sing “The Star-Spangled Banner” here, not shouting out my ‘O’!”
She’s learning to control herself. “Here” is Nationals Park, and for the last four years Cardozo has been the executive assistant to the team’s general manager. She is the Nats’ Ms. Fixit, a utility infielder who plays many positions with high doses of energy and humor. On her office wall is a photo of star third baseman Ryan Zimmerman wearing a jersey with the team name misspelled as “Natinals,” an embarrassing mistake made by a uniform supplier. “I tried to buy that jersey when it was auctioned off [for charity], but it went for multiple thousands,” she says with a laugh.
A bright-eyed woman of 53, all broad smiles and brisk efficiency, Cardozo walks me through her schedule for the day. It starts with a screwup. Davey Johnson, the former Orioles manager who now consults for the Nats, has arrived in town and gone to the wrong hotel. “There are too many Hyatts in Washington,” Cardozo grumbles. Next, she has to make sure the players have their rented tuxedos for a benefit dinner. (“Those who haven’t been fitted need to get their tails in there.”) Then she’ll talk to the San Diego Padres about their program for welcoming service members. (“We have not done as well as we should bringing the military in. I want to get a blueprint of what they do.”) After that, she’ll review a video promoting the team’s facilities and future, which scouts can show to young players and their parents. (“Everyone knows the Red Sox, everyone knows the Yankees, no one knows the Nationals. So we need help.”)
But Cardozo’s biggest assignment these days is Stephen Strasburg, the Nats’ first pick in last year’s amateur draft, a flame-throwing, right-handed pitcher who signed a four-year contract worth about $15 million. That makes him a huge investment, and on the day we talk, Strasburg is continuing his rapid rise toward the majors (he would make his debut June 8), moving from the Nats’ minor league team in Harrisburg, Pa., to their top farm club in Syracuse, N.Y. Cardozo’s job: Make sure Strasburg’s new apartment complex has a guard and a gate.
“We have to be very careful with his security,” she says. “We found he attracts a different kind of fan, who are not really interested in the Nats or in Stephen’s success. They’re interested in the monetary value of his signature. These things appear with lightning speed on eBay.” This “small pocket of very aggressive fans” can follow the young pitcher home and react “very belligerently” when he won’t meet their demands for autographs. “So we try to stay a step ahead of where he is, making sure things are organized in a safe way for him.”
The craziness started last summer, when Strasburg came to sign his contract and Ms. Fixit met him at the airport. Only 21 and just out of college in San Diego, Strasburg was “mesmerized” by his first sight of the Lincoln Memorial and stopped to take pictures. But the mood changed quickly. His hotel was crowded with fans, many wanting a signature they could convert into cash.
“I’ve been with a lot of players. There’s sort of an accepted boundary,” Cardozo says, “but I felt trapped when I was with him. They swarmed from all around. I found myself thinking about escape routes. Whenever we went to a photo shoot or an interview, I scouted out a room that had a back door. He is naive, and we are, too—we haven’t been through this before.”
Ms. Fixit might be naive about baseball, but not about politics. Her father, Nate Landow, was a longtime power broker in Democratic circles, and after she finished Walt Whitman High School (the family had moved by then to a larger house near Burning Tree Country Club in Bethesda) and Tulane University in New Orleans, he helped get her an internship in the Carter White House. That led to both a full-time job and a new boyfriend, Michael H. Cardozo, the president’s deputy counsel. A relative of the late Supreme Court Justice Benjamin Cardozo, Harolyn’s beau was a Sephardic Jew, but her father didn’t know that. “My father said, ‘He’s not Jewish, you can’t go out with him,’” she remembers, “and I said, ‘No, it’s Cardozo not Cardoza.’ ”
She spent the 1980 election campaign working for the Democratic ticket in Alabama and came home with 25 extra pounds and a set of black iron skillets she bought at a flea market. (“The food was unbelievable; I learned to fry green tomatoes and okra.”) The weight is long gone, but the skillets still get pulled out at Hanukkah to make potato latkes.
After Jimmy Carter’s defeat, she went to work for her father’s real estate business, managing his residential properties out of the Landow Building on Woodmont Avenue in Bethesda. Meanwhile she got married in 1981 and produced three children: Eden, now an obstetrician; Julia, a law student; and Michael, a college junior.
After her parents’ divorce, the Cardozos bought her old family home in 1995, and she still hopes one of her unattached offspring will eventually get married there. She also did a short stint in the social office of the Clinton White House and met a fellow volunteer named Kathleen Willey, who surfaced during the Monica Lewinsky scandal to accuse the president of making unwanted sexual advances. Cardozo showed up in Willey’s phone records and testified three times before a federal grand jury, a stressful incident she’d like to forget, but one that’s eternally etched in cyberspace. “Even now,” she says ruefully, “when you Google my name, it’s not pretty.”
When her youngest left for college, she started “thinking about getting back into the real job market.” A sports fan all her life (she used to skip Hebrew school for Redskins games), Cardozo was thinking about mailing a résumé to Skins’ owner Dan Snyder when her childhood friend Mark Lerner invited her to a Nats game in the spring of 2006. Lerner’s family was then bidding on the team (they now own it), and that night they met Jim Bowden, the club’s general manager, and his deputy, Tony Siegle. Bowden, a notoriously difficult boss, had run through a string of assistants and was looking for a new one. He was intrigued by Cardozo’s White House experience, but there was one
problem. “Clearly I had no qualifications for this job. Tony was against it, and I don’t blame him,” she says. “I would have been against it, too.” She got the job anyway and recalls: “I broke out in a rash my first day of work, I was so scared.”
One day she went to Bowden (who has now been replaced by Mike Rizzo) and voiced concern about the clubhouse chief, Mike Wallace, who was sporting a swollen jaw. He’s got an infected tooth, but he won’t see a dentist, Cardozo told her boss. “Are you kidding me?” Bowden replied. “That’s chewing tobacco!”
We talk about games gone by, about how our most powerful memories are not of the stars we saw on the field, but the relatives we sat next to in the stands. We talk about baseball’s leisurely pace, the time and space it provides to share strategies and stories. And we agree that critics who want to speed things up are booting an easy grounder. “I want the games to be longer,” Ms. Fixit says. “I really do.”
Steve Roberts’ latest book, From Every End of This Earth, was published last fall. Send him ideas for future columns at email@example.com.