Return of the Native After pitching in Boston and Texas and almost in Baltimore, Aaron Sele will play at home in Seattle

March 20, 2000

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 counter-offer. 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 that 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.

Sele went 8-7 in '94 and filled in for the injured Clemens as
the Opening Day starter in 1995. But his career in Boston
derailed when he developed tendinitis five starts later. There
were whispers that the Red Sox were peeved that Sele had spent
his time during the players' strike going to school--he's about
10 credits shy of a degree in psychology--instead of working
out, and that he was unwilling to pitch through pain during his
recovery. Then there was criticism of his less-than-fiery mound
presence. "To be a competitor you don't have to pump your fist
or rip your shirt off," Sele says. "I pitch best when people
say, 'Aaron, you look like you're going to fall asleep out
there.'"

Sele spent the rest of 1995 on the disabled list, then slogged
unhappily through two disappointing seasons during which he was
a combined 20-23 with a 5.35 ERA. By the end of the '97
season--during which he led the league in opponents' on-base
percentage (.361) and base runners allowed per nine innings
(14.8) and, though healthy, worked past the sixth inning just
once in 33 starts--his relationship with the Red Sox had soured
beyond repair. He had spent much of the year bickering with new
pitching coach Joe Kerrigan, who didn't want him throwing his
curveball to lefthanders. That November, Boston shipped its
onetime future ace to Texas.

Sele blossomed in Texas, winning his first five starts and
finishing 1998 with 19 wins. Working with pitching coach Dick
Bosman, he again began throwing his curve with impunity and
started busting hitters inside with his fastball. Midway through
last season he added a cut fastball, which bores in on the hands
of lefties, to his fastball-curve-changeup repertoire.
Lefthanded hitters, who hit .326 off Sele in '97, batted .286
against him last year. After throwing four complete games in his
first 108 starts, Sele has five in his last 66, and last season
his ERA after the All-Star break (4.08) was nearly 1 1/2 runs
lower than his first-half mark (5.51). "When Aaron came up, he
gave major league hitters too much credit," says one American
League scout. "He's grown as a pitcher in the big leagues."

"Aaron's always had that great big curve, one of the top two or
three I've seen," says Cleveland slugger Jim Thome. "Now if you
lunge for it over the plate, he'll throw that cutter in on your
hands."

As Sele piled up the wins in Texas, the accusations that he
lacked heart died, even though his mound presence is still about
as energetic as Poulsbo's rush hour. That calm, once seen as
tentativeness, is now viewed more positively. "I don't think
there was one time in two years that I went out to the mound and
Aaron wasn't in total control of his emotions," says Bosman.

Sele thinks his peaceful aura will fit well in the Pacific
Northwest. "There's such a laid-back attitude here," he says.
"People are fired up about baseball, but it's not the end if the
Mariners don't win. People say the Mariners lost, but we can
still go boating or kayaking or fishing today."

He'll learn soon that Seattle manager Lou Piniella, whom Sele
met for the first time in February, probably doesn't have the
same roll-with-the-kayak attitude. With Griffey gone, it's
unlikely that Sele will enjoy the same plush run support he
received in Texas last year (7.5 runs per start). But he will
have the advantage of pitching in spacious Safeco Field and the
comfort that comes with being home. His parents still live in
Poulsbo, where his mother is a secretary at his old high school
and his father a sheet metal technician. During the season Aaron
will split time between a lakefront home in Buckley, about an
hour south of Seattle, and a condo in the city.

"Creating an environment that I function well in and that I'm
happy with is important," Sele said last month, looking out over
Puget Sound. "I'll have that here."

--S.C.

COLOR PHOTO: RONALD C. MODRA Sele, who throws one of the best curves in baseball, has won 37 games over the past two seasons. COLOR PHOTO: RONALD C. MODRA

"I pitch best when people say, 'Aaron, you look like you're
going to fall asleep out there.'"

HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
OUT
HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
IN
Eagle (-2)
Birdie (-1)
Bogey (+1)
Double Bogey (+2)