It’s a pretty great time to be a fan of sports anime. Yowamushi Pedal was just confirmed for a second season, Ping Pong is establishing itself as a unique and brilliant take on the genre, Diamond no Ace hasn’t missed a step and Haikyuu looks like it’s settling in for a long stay as an anime. Hell, even Abarenbou Rekishi!! Matsutarou has gotten genuinely fascinating (though the main character is still a douchebag, it’s pretty clear that was the whole point).
And then we have the best pure sports series of them all. Last week Baby Steps was honored with the 2014 Kodansha Manga Award for Shounen (previously won by Diamond no Ace and Capeta, among others), and it could hardly be more richly deserved. As great as the first six episodes of Baby Steps were, you can effectively view them as the prologue. It’s quite fitting that the chapter which provided the meat of this week’s story is called “To Giant Strides”, because this was the week where a lot of dots were connected for Maruo, and where he passed a number of important tests his coach had placed for him. It was also the week where an important figure in the series’ future was introduced, though you had to be quick to catch it.
I’ve said this already, but Miura-sensei really stands out as a superb example of a youth sports coach, be it manga, anime or real-life. There are a number of ways this shines through this week, but the most transparent is the coaching method he chooses for Ei-chan – the “9-square” drill. This is a real thing, but it’s not something you’d use for every student. The thing is, though, that Miura has recognized the particular set of strengths Ei-chan brings to the table. Every tennis player is unique and they need to find a style that matches who they are. With this approach Miura has effectively given Maruo, to borrow a Seinfeld-ism, the “keys to the castle”. Not only does Mauro-kun take to the 9-square drill like a fish to water, he’s quickly expanded it out to 100 squares in his head (and notebook).
Repetition, accuracy, persistence – it’s a picture-perfect foundation to help Ei-chan the boy start to build Maruo Eichirou the tennis player. Miura’s good sense is borne out in the way this drill captures Ei-chan’s imagination. That’s a hugely critical part of motivating young athletes, and seeing Ei-chan’s enthusiasm building as he begins to imagine the possibilities is one of the great joys of Baby Steps. I also love the way Miura-kantoku handles Ei-chan and Takuma quite differently, which is a vital skill for any kind of coaching or management, be it with kids or adults. With Ei-chan he’s encouraging and detailed, and with Takuma he’s to-the-point and blunt, giving each kid what he thinks they need. Admittedly Maruo is much the easier student, but in any group, you’ll always have the easy students and the stress-generators.
Miura also sees that Takuma (the scores of his final two matches are interesting, especially the first sets) and Ei-chan have a certain symbiosis, and pushes them together in an effort to help them both. Having Ei-chan play a full set against Takuma so soon was a great vote of confidence in him, in fact – he knew Maruo would get stomped (and probably bageled) but had faith that Maruo would take the right lesson from it rather than be discouraged – and that’s exactly what happened. With some kids you wouldn’t want to remind them of how daunting the challenge in front of them is, but Miura knows that Ei-chan thrives on problem-solving, and understanding the scale of the problem he faces – and that he can’t solve it with theory and good eyesight – can only help him get better.
As for Takuma himself, we finally get our answer as to why he went postal on Ei-chan after being asked about his plans to go pro. He was skunked two years earlier by an older boy named Ike Souji, and went into a funk after having the gap between himself and an older junior in the verge of turning pro thrown in his face. There are loads of interesting implications about this revelation, but I think it better if I don’t talk about most of them. I think it can be safely noted that Ei-chan is now the same age Takuma was when that happened, which is especially interesting that the first question Ei-chan asked Takuma after his beating was “How old were you when you started playing tennis?” The answer is “Five” – and that only reinforces the scale of the problem Ei-chan faces now, having picked up a racket for the first time (literally) at the same age Takuma was when he lost that match.
It’s a testament to how good Baby Steps is as a sports series that we can see an episode like this one, based on that accurately titled manga chapter, where great strides are made without any short cuts. This is how real progress is made when learning to play a sport, and trusting the audience to understand that a lesson that ends with a 6-0 drubbing can be a training milestone is part of what makes this such a special series. The key to that connection is Ei-chan himself – he’s so likeable and humble that it’s hard not to get swept up in the journey he’s undertaken. He’s the perfect main character for a series like this one, and it’s the perfect story for a character like him. I guess that’s as much as anything proof of the brilliance of the writing.