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THE HEAT SEEKERS : It’s Away to Shea for Locals

Times Staff Writer

Their names are John Christensen, Dave Cochrane, Len Dykstra, Kevin Elster, Jeff Gardner and Steve Springer.

All began their baseball careers at Orange County high schools. All are continuing them in the New York Mets organization.

Their common bond: The Scouting Jongewaard Brothers.

Roger and Dean Jongewaard began working together as scouts for the Mets in the late ‘70s. Roger was working as a full-time scout, and Dean began helping his brother on a part-time basis.

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“We both had a hand in things, but Roger was the full-time guy,” Dean said.

The Jongewaards concentrated on Southern California and Arizona, where young baseball talent is said to flourish. It was a successful partnership, one that helped the Mets’ minor league system become one of the most respected in baseball. The Mets’ farm system has been named Organization of the Year by both Baseball America and Topps Chewing Gum for the past two years. During that time, Mets’ minor league teams have compiled a 796-591 (.574) record.

Among the Jongewaards’ finds: a lanky outfielder from Crenshaw High School named Darryl Strawberry who, three years after becoming the top draft choice in the nation, was named the 1983 National League Rookie of the Year.

“Roger gets the credit for that one,” Dean said. “He hawked that guy from the time he was in 10th grade.”

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The Jongewaard brothers went their separate ways in 1982. Roger left the Mets to become a special assignment scout for the Detroit Tigers. Dean inherited his territory and is now a full-time scout for the Mets. But the players the Jongewaards joined forces to seek out and sign continue to have an impact on the Mets’ organization, and six of those were discovered not far from Dean’s Fountain Valley home.

“All six are just real assets to the organization,” Dean Jongewaard said. “If all kids were like them, we would have no problems.

“You try to look for the kid who’s really going to work hard at his trade. Without that, the tools won’t get you too far.”

A closer look at the Orange County Mets:

John Christensen, OF (Troy, Cal State Fullerton)--The first of this crop of county products to crack the big-league roster. Christensen, 24, was called up by the Mets last September and made the major league roster this spring. He hit .316 with 14 home runs and 71 RBIs before being called up from Tidewater last season. He played on Fullerton’s NCAA championship team in 1979 and was a second-team, All-American selection as a junior after collecting 23 home runs and 78 RBIs. Christensen hit 42 homers in his three-year career at Fullerton. The Mets’ second choice in the June, 1981 draft.

Dean Jongewaard: “A gifted player.”

Dave Cochrane, INF (Troy)--Cochrane was assigned to the Mets’ double-A, Texas League affiliate in Jackson, where he is off to a slow start. The switch-hitter is batting .118 with five RBIs. Cochrane, 22, hit .267 with 22 homers and 77 RBIs last year at Jackson and has hit 22 or more homers in each of his three professional seasons. The Mets’ third selection in the June, 1981 draft, he chose signing a pro contract over attending Arizona State, where he had been offerred a full baseball scholarship.

Jongewaard: “Outstanding power . . . outstanding arm.”

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Len Dykstra, OF (Garden Grove)--The 22-year old has a solid chance of playing his first major league game this year. He’s off to a strong start in triple-A ball at Tidewater, hitting .302 with a league-leading eight stolen bases. He led the Texas League in runs scored last year with 100, becoming the first player in the history of the Jackson franchise to score 100 runs. Dykstra also made only two errors in 263 chances last season for a .992 fielding percentage. In 1983, he hit .358 and stole 105 bases for the Mets’ single-A affiliate at Lynchburg and was named the Carolina League’s most valuable player. He had a 34-game hitting streak that spanned two seasons while at Garden Grove. The Mets’ 12th selection in the June, 1981 draft. Like Cochrane, Dykstra had been offered a scholarship at Arizona State.

Jongewaard: “Outstanding speed. A great leadoff-type hitter.”

Kevin Elster, SS (Marina, Golden West College)--Elster, 20, has been assigned to the single-A team at Lynchburg, where he is hitting .276. He hit .257 with a team-high 35 RBIs in single-A ball last year at Little Falls. Golden West Coach Fred Hoover called Elster “the best shortstop we’ve ever had.” Elster used part of the signing bonus he received from the Mets to donate $2,500 to Golden West for the construction of a press box at the school’s baseball field. He was the Mets’ second pick in the January, 1984 draft.

Jongewaard: “He has outstanding tools, and he’s a great kid.”

Jeff Gardner, INF (Estancia, Orange Coast College)--Gardner, 21, signed with the Mets last January as a non-drafted free agent and is beginning his first professional season at the single-A level in Columbia. He was originally drafted by the Houston Astros in June of 1982, but chose to play at Orange Coast. He holds Orange Coast career records for runs scored (87) and times on base (178) and is ninth among all-time hitting leaders with a .360 average.

Jongewaard: “A kid who really knows how to play the game.”

Steve Springer, INF (Marina, Golden West College)--The Mets’ 20th selection in the June, 1982 draft, Springer has worked his way up to the triple-A level at Tidewater, where he is hitting .244 with 10 RBIs. The 24-year-old hit .273 with 40 RBIs last year at Jackson. Springer is the only member of this group who wasn’t signed by either Roger or Dean Jongewaard. He transferred from Golden West to the University of Utah, where he was signed by Roy Partee, on the advice of the Jongewaards.

Jongewaard: “He was drafted really low, but he has really fought his way right up. He wants to make it, and he won’t take no for an answer.”

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