The Path to the Pokémon League (Japanese: ポケモンリーグへのみちThe Road to the Pokémon League) is the eighth episode of the Pokémon anime. It first aired in Japan on May 20, 1997 and in United States on September 17, 1998.
On the way to Vermillion City, Ash meets AJ, a Gym Leader at an unsanctioned Gym who has 98 wins and zero losses. They battle, and Ash is surprised that AJ's Ground-type Sandshrew can easily beat his Flying-type Pokémon. (Flying-type Pokémon are usually strong against Ground-type Pokémon.)
Ash and his friends later see that AJ puts his Pokémon through very tough training—he makes his Sandshrew, normally weak to Water-type attacks, train in a swimming pool! Although Ash doesn't approve of the intensive training session, Brock is impressed. Ash begs for a rematch, but AJ refuses. The two argue a bit and when they fall into the pool, AJ's Sandshrew goes missing.
Are AJ's training methods too tough? Will Ash get his rematch? And what happened to AJ's Sandshrew?
Ash, Misty, and Brock are on their way to Vermilion City. Along the way, Ash has a battle with another Trainer, and Pidgeotto defeats a Rattata, securing his tenth victory. The Trainer admires Ash's two Badges, leading Misty to muse that giving Ash the Badge may have been a mistake. The Trainer points Ash to an unofficial Gym, where a strong Trainer named A.J., who has purportedly never lost a match, trains savage Pokémon.
The sign outside A.J.'s Gym indicates that the Gym is unlicensed by the Pokémon League and he has a record of 98 wins to zero losses. As Misty insults Ash, A.J. walks up and challenges him to a battle. A.J. snaps a whip, making Ash jump. He says that he plans to start competing for Badges after his 100th consecutive win. Ash smugly tells him that he has ten wins and two Gym Badges, at which point A.J. insults the Gyms, angering Misty and Brock. A.J. summons his Sandshrew to battle against Ash's Pokémon. Misty reminds Ash that Pikachu's electricity is useless against a Ground Pokémon, but Ash rejects her advice. He summons Pidgeotto to battle Sandshrew. Brock notes that a Flying Pokémon should have the advantage. However, Sandshrew rolls itself into a ball and hurls itself into the air, striking and eliminating Pidgeotto.
Ash then calls out Butterfree. Ash orders a Stun Spore attack, but A.J. cracks his whip and Sandshrew digs underground, avoiding it. It bursts out of the ground, eliminating Butterfree as well. Although Ash wants Pikachu to fight, Pikachu grabs hold of the edge of the playing field and refuses to go, finally shocking Ash. While all of this is happening, Team Rocket is spying on the match from a tree nearby. They decide they wanted to steal A.J.'s Sandshrew. Refusing to believe that anyone's Pokémon could be so strong, Ash accuses A.J. of cheating and demands a rematch at another location, but A.J. tells him to quit whining. Later, Ash overhears A.J. training his Pokémon, yelling angrily and cracking his whip. Ash intervenes to stop A.J. from hurting the Pokémon, but A.J. tells him to mind his own business. His Sandshrew is wearing a strength intensifier brace invented by A.J. himself. It enables the Sandshrew to withstand the weakening effects of water. A.J. says he's tougher on Sandshrew than his other Pokémon because it was his very first.
Appalled at A.J.'s training methods, Ash asserts that a great Pokémon Trainer should make friends with his Pokémon. He asks for Brock's input, but Brock only wants to know what kind of food A.J. is using. A.J., like Brock, mixes his own food to a secret recipe. Pikachu attempts to pick up one of Sandshrew's dumbbells, but falls backward under the weight, while Sandshrew does rapid exercises. Meanwhile, Team Rocket is crouched behind A.J.'s tent, preparing for their attempted heist. After the training, A.J.'s Pokémon are all exhausted. A.J. insults Pikachu, and Ash takes a swing at him, causing them both to fall into the pool. Pikachu tries on the strength intensifier, but it fits badly and pulls him into a ball. Sandshrew then makes fun of Pikachu and rolls itself into a ball as well.
Team Rocket rolls into the tent inside a rubber ball, intending to steal Pikachu, but they instead grab Sandshrew. After A.J. ends the rest break, he realizes that Sandshrew is missing. He releases Pikachu from the harness, but Pikachu doesn't know where Sandshrew is either. Ash suggests that it ran away because it saw that Pikachu was treated better. A.J. is extremely insulted at this, insisting Sandshrew would not have run away after all they had been through together. He sends his other Pokémon to look for Sandshrew, but Ash tries to convince A.J.'s Pokémon to leave with him. Despite the way A.J. has treated them, they ignore Ash. Meanwhile, while arguing over who carries the bag, Team Rocket is startled when Sandshrew flies out. Meowth bites Sandshrew's tail and Sandshrew burrows underground in pain. While Ash and A.J. are still arguing, Sandshrew bursts out of the ground next to him, dragging Meowth. Seeing how happy A.J. and Sandshrew are to be back together, Ash, Misty, and Brock realize how deeply A.J. cares for his Pokémon.
Surrounded by angry Pokémon and their Trainers, Meowth tries to figure a way out of his situation, when James and Jessie begin their standard litany. Jessie tells A.J. that taking his Sandshrew was a mistake; James calls it second-rate, earning A.J's ire. He challenges them to a battle. Sandshrew avoids Koffing's Sludge and Ekans's Wrap and takes them out, then defeats Meowth, who tries to bite its armored skin. Team Rocket flees after Sandshrew's Fissure attack. As this is A.J.'s 100th win, he and his Pokémon now leave to begin earning Badges. Like Ash, he too wants to be the world's greatest Pokémon Master. They part as friendly rivals, agreeing to meet in the future at one of the League competitions.
This is also the first episode without any Pokémon debuts.
This episode is the last in which Ted Lewis voices James, as well as Eric Stuart's first episode voicing James. He takes over the role when James summons Koffing in battle. This was because Lewis left for a time to do theater.
This is the first episode not explicitly set within a location from the games.
The English version of this episode is one of the few times a real animal is mentioned. Misty claims that A.J. controls Sandshrew with the crack of his whip just like a lion tamer. In the Japanese version, she simply remarks that it is amazing A.J. can control Sandshrew with the crack of his whip.
Early in the episode, Team Rocket expresses an interest in Sandshrew. However, later on they say they take no interest in A.J.'s "second rate" Sandshrew.
The background changes from plain white to a gray that fades into white.
The numbers are made into a dot-matrix format. In the original, they were in a 7-segment LED format.
The number of losses (0) is added.
A sign inside the tent saying "Fight! Work Harder!" is changed to a picture of a Poké Ball being hit with a whip.
The scene where Pikachu's holding a pillow is different between the two versions, mostly due to the fact that it's an untranslatable pun. The original version had Ash telling A.J. that Sandshrew (known as Sand in the Japanese version) is not a sandbag, Pikachu mistook sandbag for pillow since zabuton (pillow) and the Japanese word for sandbag sound similar. Ash then shouts at Pikachu for not taking him seriously. In the dubbed version, however, it was rewritten to have Ash mishear A.J. thinking he said pacing, not passing, and thus get stammered with Pikachu's pillow.
Team Rocket experiment with a different motto:
Jessie: "We are the pretty thieves..."
James: "Target: Pikachu!"
Jessie: "Team Rocket will do what it has to do..."
James: "To snatch that little Pikachu!"
At the end, a five-second panning of the battle field is cut by three seconds and replaced by a three-second clip from earlier in the episode.