The tiny town of Poulsbo, Wash., nestles near the northern tip of Bainbridge Island, a short ferry ride across Puget Sound from Seattle. Despite Poulsbo's proximity to the corporate coffee capital of the world, you won't find any of the Starbucks that are so ubiquitous on what villagers call "the other side of the water." Instead, as you stroll down Front Street, Poulsbo's main drag along Liberty Bay, you'll see quaint bakeries and shops that advertise in English and Norwegian. The fishing village was settled by Norwegian Immigrants in the 1880s, and Norwegian was the dominant language there until just before World War II.
"It's a real small town—Little Norway," says Aaron Sele, the most recent addition to the Mariners' rotation, who moved to Poulsbo with his family at age five and led North Kitsap High to a state baseball title in 1988. The righthander, who has won 37 games over the last two major league seasons, more than any pitcher this side of Pedro Martinez, gestures across the sound from the Seattle waterfront. "But the great thing about it was, in a half hour on the ferry, you could be in downtown Seattle."
If only Sele's route to the Mariners had been as direct. In January he came hjemme, as his childhood neighbors might have said, signing a two-year, $15 million contract with Seattle after spending the first seven years of his career with the Red Sox and the Rangers. It was a circuitous path to the team he had watched as a kid after hopping the ferry with friends, buying $1.50 second-deck seats in the Kingdome and sneaking down through the sparse crowds to sit behind the Seattle dugout. "One second I had my mind set on playing on the East Coast," says Sele, who had been minutes from signing a four-year, $29 million contract with the Orioles, "and a few days later I'm signed in my hometown. It couldn't have worked out any better."
"He just fell out of the sky," says Seattle general manager Pat Gillick, who over the winter brought in the two most famous hometown players in Mariners history, Sele and Bellevue, Wash., native John Olerud.
Other than trading away a certain Hank Aaron-chasing outfielder, Gillick's biggest off-season move was adding Sele to the top of a talented but inexperienced rotation. Sele, a 6'5", 220-pound innings-eater who barely breaks 90 on the radar gun but throws one of the game's fiercest top-to-bottom curveballs, was 18-9 with a 4.79 ERA for the Rangers last season and tied for second in the American League in wins. In November the Rangers offered him a four-year deal worth $28 million. A month later Sele responded with a four-year, $32 million counteroffer. Texas by then had signed free-agent lefthander Kenny Rogers, filling Sele's spot in the rotation.
So Sele, who had found a safe harbor in Texas in 1998 after five stormy years with the Red Sox, waded into the free-agent pool. He asked his agent to shop him to the Mariners. Gillick, leery of a four-year commitment, responded with a three-year, $18 million offer. Sele said no thanks.
By early January two teams were left in the sweepstakes: the Orioles and the Devil Rays, both of whom made four-year offers worth around $30 million. "My wife [Jennifer] and I talked it over for two days and decided the Orioles were a better fit for our family," says Sele, whose first child, Katherine, was born in October. "Within an hour and a half I was on a plane to Baltimore."
That's where things went haywire. On Jan. 7, Sele underwent a physical that he thought would be a formality. Orioles doctors discovered what they termed a weakness in his pitching shoulder. The condition is a residual problem, says Sele, the result of tendinitis he suffered in 1995 while with Boston. Since then Sele has followed a rigorous program to keep the muscles near the damaged area strong, and, he says, the shoulder has been fine. Indeed, Sele has missed only one start in two years (he had the flu) and has thrown 200 innings in each of the last two seasons. Still, Orioles owner Peter Angelos amended his offer to three years. The next day Sele rejected the deal.
Meanwhile the Devil Rays, having heard mat Sele was going to sign with Baltimore, had spent their money on free-agent righthander Juan Guzman. Suddenly teamless, Sele flew to Los Angeles to get a second opinion on his shoulder from Dr. Lewis Yocum. After Yocum reported that the shoulder exhibited nothing more than normal wear and tear, Sele's agent called Gillick, who was trying to figure out how to acquire another starter. "By the end of the afternoon the deal with Aaron was done," says Gillick.
"You'd like to have the stability of a four-year commitment," says Sele, "but I'm home, and I'll only be 31 when I hit the market again." Two years seems to be Sele's outer limit for happiness in one spot, anyway. After an All-America career at Washington State and a stint with Team USA that included a three-hit shutout of Cuba in 1990, Sele was the Red Sox' first-round pick in '91. He rocketed through the minors, joined the big team midway through the '93 season and became a Fenway favorite by winning his first six decisions. He finished 7-2 with a 2.74 ERA, and Boston fans and media anointed him the next Roger Clemens.