Not Making the Cut: Disappointment on the Baseball Diamond

I have some history on this blog when it comes to reviewing baseball anime, ranging from the sublime to the ridiculous. In truth, it’s probably at least in part because I never participated in sports when I was in school, other than the minimum required in gym class. What it might be like to be on a high school sports team, and to do even passably mediocre work while on it, let alone good work, is something completely outside my experience.

No doubt this is also why a recent episode of Ace of Diamond caught my eye, when once again as we head into the summer baseball tournaments, coach Kataoka Tesshin has to make the difficult decision about which players will make the summer roster — and which will not. As with the previous season, this will mean that some graduating third-year students will not make the cut, even as some particularly talented first-year students will join their senpai as starting players. Both times, it was a keenly heartbreaking moment. What must this experience be like?

I cannot even begin to imagine how not hearing their names get called crushed the hearts of these roughly two dozen boys, several of whom we got to know a little bit over the last season. Remember, most of them had been on the team for three years, had practiced with and lived alongside their teammates the entire time, and had often played in games. Yet here they were, getting the unmistakeable message that with their last summer tournament approaching, they just weren’t good enough.

I have literally nothing in my life experience with which to compare this. I have applied for jobs and been turned down, which is certainly painful but doesn’t carry a long history of working side by side with the people who turned me down. I have failed assignments in graduate school, but my mentors were ultimately in the right and I eventually passed them after trying again. Maybe my lifelong hobby in music is a better analogy for me — yet while I’ve certainly failed to get playing positions that I’d hoped to get, again this cannot possibly compare.

Yet while coach Kataoka may be many things, unsympathetic isn’t one of them. He had played high school baseball himself, after all. So after dismissing the other players who’d made the roster, he made it clear to these third-year students that their team still needed them, and they still had vital roles to play other than in games. “Please continue to make me proud,” he finally entreated them.

And apparently it worked. Every single one of these third-year students showed up at the next practice to assist their teammates, including the boy who angrily stomped off and missed Kataoka’s speech. And just think, in an earlier season of the show, coach Kataoka very nearly quit. Good thing he didn’t, since few people in this world have such skills in encouragement and persuasion.

I don’t know whether Ace of Diamond can ever hold the same place in my heart as Oofuri, or even Major. Yet, as my hopes for a third season of Oofuri diminish daily, I find myself wondering where that series went wrong and Ace of Diamond went right. For a long time I thought Ace of Diamond had too many characters, but lately I’m realizing that perhaps Oofuri had too few. Somehow the creators of Ace of Diamond manage to help us get to know even minor characters with few lines, who are often on rival teams. (Narumiya Mei and Todoroki Raichi have entered the chat.) While the Nishiura Ten of Oofuri each got more depth of character due to having proportionally larger roles, it might be that a large cast is a plus in baseboy anime. From what little I can understand of the Oofuri manga (it being written in an odd runic language that I can only minimally decipher), it seems that Mihashi and Abe and Tajima and all the others will enter their second year of high school as is usual, to be joined by at least a dozen first-year baseball players. But it might be too little too late. Which is a shame, since I’d really love to see Mihashi’s “chicken face” upon first being addressed as “Mihashi-senpai.”

But in fairness, Ace of Diamond owes its success to much more than its larger cast. Perhaps it’s because so many viewers (both in Japan and elsewhere) can find boys they knew in the cast, or even their own younger selves. I suspect, though, that it’s in no small part because of the special relationship that a talented coach has with his team, the trust he’s built up with them, and his ability to turn heartbreak into inspiration with one speech.

Whatever the reason, whether or not Ace of Diamond ever reaches the topmost tier in my ranking, I am along for the ride however far it may go.

Ace of Diamond can be streamed on Crunchyroll. Featured illustration by mari-p (reprinted w/permission).

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