I never started watching One Piece until after Baratie. I think it was closer to Marineford or even when the time skip happened, but Baratie was one of the best moments in the East Blue Saga.
Before Baratie, the arcs were pretty lighthearted. Yeah there were some plots to kill people, kids whose parents died or abandoned them, or someone who had an ax for a hand, but in the One Piece world, that’s on the lighter side of things.
One of the defining aspects of all members of the Strawhat Pirates is that they all have a tragic backstory.
Luffy’s is actually pretty good considering his crewmates. Zoro’s is sad, but in the grand scheme of life, losing your best friend isn’t high up on the tragedy scale. Usopp’s was pretty sad too, but he seemed to handle it pretty well since he had some friends in his village.
Sanji’s backstory, or what we get of it at this point, is the worst one we’ve had up to this point in the story. Basically, he was shipwrecked with this pirate cook on a small rock that left them stranded for months. There were two bags of food, and so the pirate cook, Zeff, took a bag and gave Sanji the other. They went to opposite sides of the rock and basically never spoke to eachother for about 2 or 3 months.
Sanji was growing pretty hungry, and decided to go steal some food from Zeff, and saw that Zeff’s bag was full of gold, and instead of eating, Zeff ate his own foot to survive instead of eating Sanji’s food.
Fast forward a few years and Sanji and Zeff are working on a boat they paid for with that gold, and are using it as a restaurant to feed hungry people of the sea.
Luffy and his companions (Nami, Usopp, and Zoro) find the restaurant ship, when a pirate, Don Kreig, attacks the restaurant. Luffy helps fend him off and basically tells Sanji that he’s joining the crew.
There are a lot of good things about this arc. There’s the Mihawk “fight” with Zoro, Zoro’s pledge to never lose a fight again, Luffy jumping from piece of driftwood to piece of driftwood to fight Kreig, Nami “betraying” the Strawhats, and plenty of others.
From what I know, a lot of people became fans of One Piece because of this arc. It was the first serious arc, and the tension was building to finally make it to the grandline. The Strawhats just got their ship, Sanji was going to be their cook, and they had Nami working with them as the navigator. They had everyhting they needed, and all they had to do was find Sanji, the cook.
Sanji doesn’t want to join at first, but inevitably does because his goal is to find the All Blue.
Even though this arc was full of great moments, the one that really did it for me was Don Kreig actually. He had amassed this enormous pirate fleet, he was the most powerful known pirate in the East Blue, and he had weaponry that Franky would swoon over. He had everything he thought he needed for the grandline…and he still failed.
He still lost almost immediately after entering the grandline. His loss created a horror and a fear for this mystical grandline that Luffy and crew had been dreaming of for dozens of chapters, and it scared the strongest man we had seen at this point.
This was the first real foreshadowing of what would come. Yeah, we knew about the grandline, and we knew it was the goal of the Strawhats and everything, but this was the first real moment we got to see how scary the world could really be…and what’s best of all is that Luffy smiled.
He smiled in the face of this “danger”. He was ready to embrace the danger and take it head on. Because of Don Kreig, we got to see a part of Luffy that we really hadn’t seen yet. We got to see the childish, adventure seeking, excited character that Luffy is, and this is where a lot of people fell in love with him, and with the story of One Piece.