The Devil Rays looked to the Pacific Northweast this winter in grabbing Lou Piniella. They might want to make another call to Seattle before Tuesday's amateur draft, this time to consult Roger Jongewaard.
The Mariners' longtime scouting and player development chief is baseball's unquestioned expert in using baseball's top draft selection -- which isn't as easy as it looks. There have been 38 No. 1 picks in draft history, and Jongewaard has made the best two: Alex Rodriguez (1993) and Ken Griffey Jr. (1987). Throw in Darryl Strawberry (1980) from his days crosschecking with the Mets, and Jongewaard has hit big where so many others have flailed miserably. Where the likes of Al Chambers (1979), Shawn Abner (1984) and Matt Anderson (1997) are maddeningly common, Jongewaard finds the players who jump-start a franchise's future.
"I really don't see myself knowing more than anyone else who's been in scouting as long as I have," said Jongewaard, a soft-spoken, 66-year-old Californian. "It's just a matter of taking the best athlete you can find and going with your instincts."
Jongewaard's instincts have been better than you might expect. As much as people think that choosing an A-Rod or Junior is obvious, consider this: Both times, Jongewaard had to fight to pick those guys over other players management preferred.
In 1987, Jongewaard had Griffey, a lanky outfielder for Moeller High in Cincinnati, in his sights from the start. But then-Mariners owner George Argyros stuck his nose in the process and preferred Cal State-Fullerton pitcher Mike Harkey, a tall, hard-throwing right-hander who could help the struggling Mariners quickly. Argyros put the vise on Jongewaard.
"I think you should take Harkey," Argyros said.
"Junior's a special player," Jongewaard replied. "We cannot take anyone else."
Argyros finally gave in. "OK," Argyros said grudgingly. "But you'd better be right."
He was. Griffey went No. 1 to Mariners, Harkey No. 4 to the Cubs. Injuries quickly derailed Harkey's career -- he won just 36 games in eight big-league seasons -- while Griffey shot up the minor-league ladder and reached Seattle in less than two years. His 474 homers (and counting) are the most ever for a No. 1 overall pick.
Six years after taking Griffey No. 1, Jongewaard had the top selection again and had zeroed in on Rodriguez, a fantastically precocious shortstop for Westminster Christian Academy in Miami. Memories of Griffey emphasized that no matter how raw, a high school player at a premium position could occasionally help turn a franchise around. But a college pitcher again looked to gum up Jongewaard's plans. Wichita State's Darren Dreifort presented a quick-fix option that appealed to Lou Piniella and his beleaguered pitching staff.
"Had we not had Junior, we probably couldn't have sold everyone on Alex," Jongewaard recalls. "I maybe wanted Dreifort a bit more sometimes, too, because he was a little safer. But every time I saw Alex, I said I just couldn't do it. I couldn't in my conscience not take Alex."
The phone rang in Jongewaard's Seattle office an hour before the draft began. It wasn't Piniella. It was Rodriguez. The young shortstop wanted to be drafted by the Dodgers at No. 2 so he could play in the National League, in a big market, and return for some games in his south Florida hometown.
"I don't want you to draft me," Rodriguez said.
"I'm sorry, Alex," Jongewaard told him. "I just can't do that."
Jongewaard pulled the trigger and took Rodriguez with the No. 1 pick, and after a long, contentious summer of negotiation (few remember that Rodriguez enlisted the union's help trying to make himself a free agent) finally got him under contract. Rodriguez reached Seattle in less than a year, at age 18, and blossomed into a superstar two seasons later.
Imagine if Jongewaard had chosen Harkey and left Griffey to the Pirates at No. 2 -- Junior would have been teammates with Barry Bonds on those great Pittsburgh teams of the early '90s, and today Seattle might not have a team at all. Add to that A-Rod in Hollywood, and you get an idea of the impact of Roger Jongewaard and his No. 1 draft selections.
He has made news with other first-round picks, too. In 1980, when his Mets took Strawberry No. 1, Jongewaard got them to spend the No. 23 overall pick on another California outfielder, bringing into professional baseball one Billy Beane. Ironic how it's now Beane who is at the forefront of avoiding high school players, with which Jongewaard hit the jackpot in Griffey, Rodriguez and Strawberry.
Jongewaard himself was a prep star at Poly High in Long Beach, Calif., the school that later produced Tony Gwynn. The left-hand hitting catcher signed with the Braves in 1954 -- 11 years before baseball instituted its draft -- and was invited to major-league spring training the following February. His locker was next to 21-year-old Hank Aaron because, Jongewaard recalls, "There was some segregation. I was the worst white player and he was the best black player."
But Jongewaard never hit enough in the minors and was traded to the Dodgers while another Braves prospect, named Joe Torre, made it up to catch in Milwaukee. Jongewaard bounced around and reached Triple-A before calling it quits in 1959. He entered private business but became the bullpen catcher for the Angels in 1969 before entering scouting three years later.
Jongewaard says he probably will retire this year or next, ending a 50-year span in the game. What does he consider his top draft picks? Even though he has Rodriguez, Griffey and Rodriguez on his résumé, he says those were "no-brainers -- even though I would have been more popular with management if I had taken the pitchers." No, he picks Lenny Dykstra, a runt high school outfielder he believed in back in 1981 and took in the 13th round.
Too bad Jongewaard didn't sign his previous pick that year. His name? Roger Clemens.
Alan Schwarz is the senior writer of Baseball America magazine and a regular contributor to ESPN.com.