Considering that the source manga is 38 volumes and counting, an awful lot happened in the first two episodes of Ace of Diamond. This isn’t an entirely unusual scenario for sports manga, where there’s often a preamble that establishes the main character just as he’s about to go through a major transition. But it does present a bit of a challenge to viewers more used to a traditional narrative structure, where the cast that’s introduced in the first place is the one we’re going to be spending our time with for the rest of the series.
I haven’t read anywhere close to the entire manga, and I won’t spoil as to what’s coming up in the parts I have. But you can trust that what we’ve seen – and who we’ve seen – at the start of Daiya no A are important as the story progresses, and not just as character-builders for Eijun. Again, my basic take on this series is that trust and team are the main components, and we’re going to see that play out from many angles. That being said, though, every sports series has to have an athlete at its center no matter how important the supporting cast is, and Eijun is certainly that person here.
In purely baseball terms, Eijun is a pretty typical phenom – a kid with great natural talent who never got any real coaching. His duel with Azuma shows this off pretty well, as well as being a showcase for Kazuya’s keen eye. If you watch enough baseball you’ll hear a lot about how pitchers with “late break” are highly prized, and that’s what sets Eijun apart. In his own mind he throws nothing but fastballs (“straights” is the common term here) but as Takashima-san spotted and Kazuya soon discovered, none of the pitches he throws is actually straight. His loose shoulder and whippy arm motion imparts a ton of spin on the ball as he releases it, causing late movement as it approaches the plate. Likely because he’s never had proper instruction (remember he said he doesn’t even like to watch baseball) Eijun never puts the exact same spin on the ball twice because he never repeats his delivery exactly. There’s a danger of getting too geeky here, but that’s the key to understanding Eijun as a pitcher at this point in the story, and both his strength and weakness.
Of course, if Eijun never knows exactly where his pitch is going neither does the catcher – or the hitter. Kazuya being a smart kid knows that Azuma merely wants to humiliate the snot-nosed brat who mouthed off to him, so there’s no need to challenge him with strikes. That won’t work nearly as well in real games but it works just fine in this steel cage match, as Eijun scores a victory that changes the way he looks at baseball. The implication is that Eijun himself has been holding back because he knows his catcher simply hasn’t been good enough to catch his pitches if he turns it loose – but Kazuya is good enough, and then some. This is a different sort of teamwork theme, but teamwork nonetheless – the partnership between pitcher and catcher where every pitch is a jointly created work of art. As different as the pitchers and the series themselves are, this is an element that Daiya no A has in common with Oofuri, the focus on the strategic and personal relationship between the pitcher and the catcher.
This, of course, is a hard lesson for Eijun – not because he’s too dumb to learn it (he’s not) but because the implications are unpleasant. The fact is that if his talent is going to develop, it can’t do so if he’s hanging around with the same kids he went to middle school with, no matter how much he loves them. They know it too – they probably always have – and they do what good friends have always done, hide their own feelings in order to convince their friend to do what’s right for them. Effectively Eijun’s whole Nagano circle is manipulating him into doing the best thing for him – his teammates, his Dad (asking him if he’s scared), his Grandfather. But the truth comes out in the end, where his teammates finally break on the day Eijun is leaving for Tokyo and admit that what they really wanted was to stay together. I like the fact that Diamond no Ace acknowledges this in the end – this is a kind of abandonment no matter how you spin it, and that’s something Eijun is going to have to live with.
Eijun could have stayed in Nagano, and we would have had a different sort of series – other sports manga have gone that route (including Major, though the situation isn’t 100% analogous). But this is the road Ace of Diamond has chosen for Eijun, and it’s likewise a classic sports scenario – he now has to challenge himself against the very best with the hopes of all the teammates he left behind on his shoulders. If you look at the first two eps as the preamble, the series effectively starts next week with Eijun’s arrival at Seidou – the eternal quest for Koshien, the beating heart at the core of so many manga over the decades. Fans of sports manga will surely appreciate the way this series honors the spirit of the genre, but equally rewarding will be the way it forges its own path in telling the story.