February 13, 2010

Talking baseball with Marlins Scout Roger Jongewaard

Today was my lucky day. My wife Cheryl and I headed over to one of our favorite restaurants in Long Beach this morning; Jongewaard's Bake n' Broil (a place I mentioned in an earlier post) and while we were waiting to be seated, our friend Andy who manages the restaurant told me his father-in-law Roger Jongewaard was just finishing up his breakfast and asked if I was interested in talking to Roger.

Andy and I had been talking about setting up a time for me to interview Roger for this blog and as luck would have it, today ended up being the day. Even though I was caught a little off guard, I knew I couldn’t pass up this wonderful opportunity to talk a little baseball with a man who has spent more than forty years in the game.

My wife Cheryl grabbed a pad of paper and some pens for me and Roger and I headed off to chat about baseball.

Roger is presently serving as a scout for the Florida Marlins. His primary duties are to keep tabs on the Angels, Padres, Mariners and Rockies. He attends about fifteen regular season games for each team, on top of trips to their minor league affiliates. His job is to be the eyes for the Marlins should they enter into any trade discussions with any of the four teams. It’s a job Roger loves doing as he never gets tired of going to the ball park, even at the age of 73.

Roger was drafted by the Milwaukee Braves out of Long Beach Poly High School. Had he wanted to, he could have gone to play at the University of Southern California (USC), but opted to play pro baseball instead. In his early days in the game, Roger had the chance to play with Hall of Famer, Hank Aaron while they were both in the minor leagues.

Roger remembers one spring training where the Braves were having a hard time catching up to the heat being thrown by an opposing pitcher. He said, “Guys kept striking out and Aaron steps in and hit a homerun down the right field line (the opposite way). When Aaron came back to the dugout, he was comenting that he couldn’t get around on the ball and we looked at him and said, yeah, but you just hit it out!” What Aaron viewed as a failure, others would have considered a tremendous success.

When Roger’s playing days ended, he could have taken a job as a manager of one of the Braves minor league teams, but opted to return home to California. He worked a few years and realized that if he was going to get into upper management; he’d most likely have to relocate. He decided that wasn’t what he wanted to do and didn’t like the idea of working for someone else anyway and went into the restaurant business by opening Bake N’ Broil in 1965.

One day he got a call from Rocky Bridges who was with the California Angels at the time. Bridges said they needed someone to fill in as their bull pen catcher and asked if he’d be interested (Roger was a catcher). Roger had wanted to get back into the game and saw this as his chance and took the job.

Even though Roger loved being in the game, he wasn’t thrilled about the travel. He had a growing family at home and wanted to be close by. After spending a few years as the Angels’ bull pen catcher; one thing led to another and he was hired as a part time scout by the Texas Rangers and was later signed by the New York Mets as a full time scout. Roger covered the Southern California area which fit his lifestyle; allowing him to be at home at the end of each day to sleep in his own bed and be with his family.

Along the way, he signed players like Darryl Strawberry, Kevin Mitchell, and Lenny Dykstra. When he first saw Dykstra, he thought he might be too small; however, he was very “muscular.” When questioned about his physique, Dykstra told Roger he got into some really good “vitamins.” I had to chuckle. Roger went on to say Dykstra had a much better career than he expected.

Mitchell (who he signed at a try-out camp) ended up being another player (like Dykstra) who exceeded his expectations. Roger said, “I really didn’t know how high of a ceiling he had offensively.”

If you’ve read the book “Moneyball” you no doubt know that Roger also signed a young prospect named Billy Beane. I asked Roger why he thought Beane never panned out as a major league player and Roger said, “He was too smart. He over thank the game instead of letting his natural ability work for him.”

After leaving the Mets, Roger scouted for the Detroit Tigers and earned himself a World Series ring in 1984. He then spent 20 years with the Seattle Mariners, where he held a variety of positions including Vice President of Scouting and Player Development from 1989 to 2003.

Jongewaard is often mentioned as being responsible for signing both Alex Rodriguez and Ken Griffey, Jr.

In Junior’s case, it’s been well documented that the Mariners’ owner George Argyros really wanted to sign a pitcher named Mike Harkey.  I asked Roger about that. Roger said, “The owner kept asking me if Harkey could help the team right now and I said, yes he could. He would then say, but you’d rather we signed this high school kid; why?” Roger would say, “he’s special.” Argyros would then remind him that he had said the same thing about Patrick Lennon, who was the Mariners first round pick in 1986 and 8th overall.

Lennon wasn’t panning out quite so well, but that didn’t deter Roger’s confidence. He knew Junior was extra special and stuck to his guns. Roger explained, “the owner told me if he didn’t make it, it was going to be my (butt). That didn’t really phase me because he said that a lot.”

I had to chuckle and thought to myself that Roger must be a pretty good poker player. It never occurred to me that scouts had to have nerves of steel.

Roger said that Junior was “the best left handed hitter he had ever seen.” When asked who was the best right handed hitter he’d seen, he responded with “Manny Ramirez.”

He went on to tell me more about the process involved in going after Ken Griffey, Jr. He was worried that Junior wouldn’t be "eligible.” When I asked him about that, he said they gave prospects “character” tests to measure their “desire” and other areas of their character. Ken Griffey, Sr. had warned Roger that Junior wasn’t really motivated in the classroom. He told Roger he was a smart kid, but he didn’t have the patience for tests.

Roger explained that Junior went to a high school in Ohio that was a football power house and when Junior decided he didn’t want to play football; he didn’t quit. Instead he let his grades slide so that he would become ineligible. The test would be a key.

Roger had to get Junior to take the test three times. The first time he took the test he didn’t finish it. There were about 90 questions and Junior looked at all the questions and simply didn’t want to finish the exam. The second time he answered the first half really well and then took a break. When he came back, he just answered questions randomly. It wasn’t until Roger told him that if he wanted to be the first pick in the first round he had to complete the test.

Junior finally relented and took the test for a third time and scored well.

As we continued our conversation, I could see Roger had a great deal of confidence in his abilities to spot talent. He admitted that there were times when he was wrong and guys didn’t pan out for one reason or another, but that clearly didn’t stop him.

He told me he really believed Ryan Anderson was going to be a #1 starter. Ryan was 6’11” and had electric stuff; however, three surgeries cut his career short. He also mentioned Tim Leary, who he also believed would be a #1 starter. Leary did carve out a career in the major leagues from 1981 to 1994, but never lived up to Roger’s expectations.

Roger even told me a story about a catcher he signed named Ryan Christianson, who he signed out of high school. At the time Scott Boras told him he didn’t think it was a good idea to sign a high school catcher because they had the lowest odds of panning out. To which, Roger told Boras, “Yeah, that’s true, if someone else signs them.” Christianson didn’t pan out and spent his career in the minors. Roger now admits that Boras was “right” in this case.

I really loved this story because even though Roger is clearly a confident man, he has a humble side. Getting a peak into his personality was such a treat. He has rubbed elbows with so many greats in the game and it probably has never occurred to him that he himself is pretty great.

Since we were on the subject of catchers, I had to ask Roger about the Angels’ own Hank Conger. Roger said he saw him when he was at Rancho Cucamonga and said, “He looks like he can really hit. He might end up being a DH.”

Now that I had him talking about the Angels, I had to ask him about who he had seen in their system that impressed him. The first name he brought up was Nick Adenhart.

Roger said, “Before we (the Marlins) traded Miguel Cabrera to the Tigers, we talked to the Angels about Nick Adenhart, but they wouldn’t budge. I really liked him and thought he would be very good.”

Other players he liked a lot included Erick Aybar and Joe Saunders. When he mentioned Saunders, I knew Roger was my kind of guy. Saunders is a favorite of my wife and me (as I’ve noted several times on this blog).

I asked Roger what he thought of Brandon Wood and if he reminded him of anyone. Roger said, “He reminds me a little bit of Ralph Kiner.” He went on to say, “He has the ability to put the ball in the air really well. That’s something we try to teach. He can hit a lot of homeruns.”

I then asked Roger what he thought of Mike Scioscia. Roger didn’t hesitate. “He’s great. I tried to hire him when I was in Seattle.” Mike had had a meeting with then Dodger GM Kevin Malone who told Scioscia he wasn’t in their plans. Roger offered him a job as the manager for their AAA affiliate in Tacoma; noting that they already had Lou Piniella as their manager, but giving Scioscia an indication that he could possibly slide into the manager position down the road; after all, “Piniella was pretty volatile.”

As Scioscia was considering the opportunity, the Angels came calling. Roger said, “Mike called me up and told him that the Angels had offered him the job as the manager of their big club.” Roger then said to Scioscia, “You mean to tell me you’d rather manage the Angels than the Tacoma Timbers?” To which Scioscia chuckled.

As we concluded our discussion, I asked Roger what he liked most about baseball. He said, "The people." He tried to retire once and when he moved to Fallbrook, California he thought he'd spend his time "picking fruit" but baseball kept calling to him. He went on to say, "going to the ball park beats picking fruit any day."

I could have talked with Roger for hours; but I wanted to be mindful of his time and besides, I still hadn’t had breakfast and it was now lunch time. It was worth it though. You could say that I had my dessert before my meal because talking baseball with a legend was certainly a treat.

Below is a photo of Roger Jongewaard with one of his grandaughters (Amanda) and Film-maker Steven Soderbergh (When Roger was being interviewed for the movie "Moneyball"). Photo courtesy of Andy Child.

Five days until pitchers and catchers report.

BallHype: hype it up!


  1. Nice job James. Very interesting.

  2. Should of mentioned all the great things he has done for inner-city baseball, a very charitable man!