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June 12, 2012 at 7:11 AM

Roger Jongewaard, a seminal figure in Mariners’ history, dies at 76

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Pat Gillick, Roger Jongewaard and Lou Piniella watch John Halama throw during spring training of 2000. Seattle Times staff photo).

One week after the death of former Mariners general manager Hal Keller, the organization has lost another one of its seminal figures. Roger Jongewaard, their long-time scouting director, died Monday of a heart attack, according to USA Today’s Bob Nightengale on Twitter. He was 76.

It’s not overstating things to say that Jongewaard was a giant of the scouting business. Everyone in the game knew and revered him. As Mariners’ scouting director, he had two No. 1 overall picks to work with. They became Ken Griffey Jr. and Alex Rodriguez. Not too shabby.

To select Griffey, Jongewaard had to plead with owner George Argyros not to take his preferred choice, Cal State Fullerton pitcher Mike Harkey. I talked to Roger about that for a 2010 story on Griffey, and wrote this:

Jongewaard had to convince skeptical M’s owner George Argyros that Griffey was the right man. Argyros, it seems, was still irked about the slow progress of Jongewaard’s previous year’s No. 1, outfielder Patrick Lennon.

“I told him I wanted to take Junior,” recalled Jongewaard, now 74 and living near San Diego, where he scouts for the Florida Marlins. “He said, `No, there’s a college pitcher from Fullerton I think is better suited for us, Mike Harkey.’

” `No, Junior’s the guy,’ ” Jongewaard assured Argyros.

” `That’s what you said about the last guy,’ ” the owner replied.

Jongewaard ultimately won that debate, and the rest is baseball history and Seattle legend.

The legend is that top scout Bob Harrison altered his scouting report on Griffey, inflating his numerical rating to help convince Argyros that Griffey was the right choice.

As a top Mets’ scout prior to that, Jongewaard presided over the selection of Darryl Strawberry. Also Billy Beane, as later detailed in “Moneyball.” Len Dykstra and Kevin Mitchell were his, too.

Jongewaard left the Mariners after the 2004 season, having spent 19 years as their lead talent evaluator. Jongewaard had joined the Mariners as director of scouting in 1985, having worked previously with the Angels, Mets and Tigers. In 1989, he become vice president of scouting and player development. When Bill Bavasi took over from Pat Gillick as general manager, he replaced Jongewaard with Bob Fontaine as head of scouting and offered Jongewaard a part-time scouting position, which he declined. Jongewaard later scouted for the Florida Marlins under GM Larry Beinfest, who had worked under him in Seattle. Here’s a nice story from 2010, with a fascinatng anecdote about how Jongewaard tried to hire Mike Scioscia to manage Tacoma right before the Angels hired him. Just think, when Lou Piniella left, it could have been Scioscia, rather than Bob Melvin, taking over.

As a player, Jongewaard had a brief minor-league career as a catcher, including a season with the Seattle Rainiers in 1959. One of his claims to fame is serving as the catcher on the classic “Home Run Derby” television show, filmed at old Wrigley Field in South Central Los Angeles, not too far from Jongewaard’s Long Beach home. I talked to him about how that came about for a 2001 story:

“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 wasn’t enough to remember. 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.”

For years, Jongewaard owned and operated a restaurant in Long Beach, Bake ‘n Broil. Among his honors was receiving Baseball America’s Roland Hemond Award for Lifetime Achievement in Baseball in 2004.

Other players drafted under Jongewaard’s watch included Tino Martinez (1988), Ron Villone (1992), Jason Varitek (1994), Jose Cruz Jr. (1995) and Gil Meche (1996).

On a personal note, Jongewaard was a warm and friendly person completely without pretension. When you asked him a question, you always — always — got a direct answer. And he wasn’t afraid to admit his mistakes, which were greatly out-numbered by examples of his astute judgment. He will be greatly missed.

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