Back in the spring of 1993, agent Scott Boras wanted to make the Mariners think Alex Rodriguez would be too expensive to sign. Roger Jongewaard wasn’t buying it.
As Mariners scouting director, holding the No. 1 overall pick in the draft, Jongewaard knew Rodriguez was the best player available. Despite the penny-pinching ways of then-owner George Argyros and the machinations of Boras, Jongewaard was intent on selecting Rodriguez.
As unassuming as he may have been, Jongewaard wasn’t going to be pushed around, not in making his selection or getting the player signed. Jongewaard wound up with the player he wanted that year, just as he did in 1987, when Arygros, an Orange County, Calif., resident, became enamored with Cal State Fullerton pitcher Mike Harkey.Jongewaard stuck with his conviction and instead took high school outfielder Ken Griffey Jr., with the first selection that year.
Rodriguez and Griffey were easily the best talents in those drafts, and they have become two of the best No. 1 picks in draft history.
Jongewaard, in his quiet but firm way, had the confidence in his scouts and his own evaluations to fight the battles and make sure he got the best player.
Jongewaard, 86, died of a heart attack on June 11.
Jongewaard’s death came a week after the death of Hal Keller, 84, at his home in Sequim, Wash. Keller was Jongewaard’s predecessor in Seattle, though he had the title director of player development, and provided the early foundation for Mariners success despite a budget so tight he had a staff of just six scouts.
Keller, the brother of King Kong Keller, was a former catcher whose front office career included working with the Washington Senators, moving with the team to Texas and then joining the Mariners front office. He later scouted with the Tigers and Angels.
With the Rangers, Keller introduced use of the radar gun. “Immediately we signed (Dave) Righetti, David Clyde, Len Barker, Tommy Boggs, Jim Clancy and Danny Darwin,” Keller said. “We went from having no arms to a lot of power arms.”
The Rangers also drafted and signed impact offensive players during Keller’s days, including Bill Madlock, Jeff Burroughs, Mike Cubbage, Roy Howell, Mike Hargrove, Jim Sundberg, Roy Smalley and Pete O’Brien.
During the four years he oversaw Mariners drafts, before he became GM, the team signed pitchers Mark Langston, Mike Moore and Bill Swift, outfielder Phil Bradley and shortstop Spike Owen. “I had a lot of good people working for me,” Keller said. “They found a lot of good players.”
Jongewaard oversaw the Mariners drafts from 1985-2004, and his success rate was enviable. Among his first-round selections were Griffey, Rodriguez, Tino Martinez, Shawn Estes, Ron Villone, Jason Varitek, Jose Cruz Jr., Gil Meche, Matt Thornton and Adam Jones. And as an area scout with the Mets, his resume included Darryl Strawberry, Kevin Mitchell and Lenny Dykstra.
But Jongewaard will live forever in scouting lore for the person he was and the leadership he provided. He spent his final years working part-time with the Marlins. Miami president Larry Beinfest began his front-office career with Seattle, working under Jongewaard.
“He was patient, nurturing, a lot of fun,” Beinfest said. “He signed some great players and had tremendous feel for the game. It was an honor to hire him with the Marlins and have him work in our pro scouting department. Everyone he knew he made better.”
Jongewaard was the 2004 recipient of Baseball America’s Roland Hemond Award for his longtime contributions to scouting and player development, and he showed nice guys could succeed. There’s nary a negative word about Jongewaard as a person or evaluator.
“Roger Jongewaard is a scout’s scout,” Mariners president Chuck Armstrong said. “I think he’s the best talent evaluator I’ve ever run across in baseball.”
Jongewaard was a product of the talent-rich Long Beach area, graduating from high school in 1954 and signing with the Milwaukee Braves. His most notable achievement during his playing days was serving as catcher in the original “Home Run Derby” television series.
“They called around looking for guys to throw and catch, and I lived in Long Beach,” he recalled. “It wasn’t a big deal back then. They might not have even paid me anything, but even if they did, it may have been gas money. I wasn’t in awe at all, because I had been to spring training and played in some exhibition games.”
After a six-year minor league playing career, Jongewaard returned to baseball in 1969 with the Angels. He started scouting with the Rangers in 1973 and went to the Mets in 1976. The Tigers hired him as a special assignment scout in 1982, a position he held until the Mariners hired him four years later. It was a life and career in baseball well spent.