If you were to ask me to name one film that influenced me the most as a child, chances are, the film I’d tell you about would be the 1994 film Angels In The Outfield. If you’ve seen the film, you know that it’s far from Oscar-worthy. If I were to give you a top ten list of what I thought were the best baseball movies ever made, this film probably wouldn’t make the cut.
If you haven’t seen the movie, you should know that it follows a young boy named Roger (played by a young Joseph Gordon-Levitt). Roger lives in a foster home, and he spend most of days dreaming about the day when his vagrant father, whom he adores, will finally come and take Roger home, so that they can be a family again. When his father visits one day, Roger asks him when they might get to be a family again, to which his father responds, “I’d say when the Angels win the pennant.”
The catch is that the Angels, who play in Roger’s hometown, are the worst team in baseball. That is, until Roger prays one night that God will help the Angels start winning so that he and his father can become a family again. Roger’s prayer for the team is answered, and he soon forms a relationship with the hot-headed coach of the Angels, George Knox (played by Danny Glover). At first, Knox is skeptical of Roger’s claims that he can see real angels and that they’re helping the team. But soon, he begins to think that maybe there’s something to the claims, ridiculous as they may sound. Needing all the help he can get, he keeps Roger around as a sort of good luck charm.
The film is at times very cheesy, as well as sappy, not to mention its depiction of angels getting involved in baseball games is theologically problematic. Becoming a father has caused me to start looking at everything with a critical eye, especially films. Looking back at this film now, I can’t help but wonder if I would be hesitant to let my kids see it if it were to be released in today’s time. Honestly, I think there’s a good chance that if I were to see this movie coming out today, I’d probably choose to skip it. The sappiness of it, along with the portrayal of angels as bumbling people in shining pajamas who play baseball, would probably scare me away. But in skipping it, I would potentially be robbing my kids of something very special.
I think it’s necessary to speak on what has stuck with me about this film all these years, and why I think it influenced me as a young person as much as any film I’ve come across, if not more so.
When I think about this movie, the character that stands out in my memory the most is the character Mel Clark (played by Tony Danza.) Mel is a washed-up pitcher with nothing to do but soak his arm in an ice bath and sign autographs for fans who knew him back in his glory days. Our first introduction to the character comes when Roger’s friend JP spots him signing autographs. He walks up to him and says excitedly, “You used to be Mel Clark!” to which Mel replies, “Yeah. I used to be.”
Mel never gets to see any playing time on the mound anymore, that is, until Roger sees an angel with him in the dugout. Roger has a hard time convincing coach Knox to put Mel in, but eventually Knox takes a chance, and not only does Mel do well—he leads the team to a winning streak that takes them all the way to a chance at winning the pennant.
The light soon fades out of the film, as Roger’s father walks out of his life for good, ignoring the “promise” he made earlier in the film. At one point in the film, JP looks up at the sky and sees a crescent moon, and he says, “Look! It’s God’s thumbnail!” to which Roger replies, “It’s just the moon, JP. There’s no God up there.” Coach Knox later opens up to Roger, telling him, “You can’t go through life thinking everyone you meet will one day let you down. Because if you do, a very bad thing will happen. You’ll end up like me.”
Then comes the climax of the film—the game that will help the Angels clinch the division pennant if they win. Mel Clark pitches the entire game, and after throwing 159 pitches, he’s spent by the time the last batter steps up to the plate. There’ve been no real angels helping in the game up until that point, just the players. Then Coach Knox walks out to the mound, and Mel is certain that he’s about to be taken out. That’s when Knox tells him, “You’ve got an angel with you right now. Just showed up, and he’s here to help.” Roger steps out of the dugout and makes the signal, and soon every Angels fan in the stadium joins in. Mel throws one lasts pitch, which is hit right back to him. He dives to catch it, and the game is won.
In the midst of their celebration, Mel shouts to Coach Knox, “There are angels!” but Knox replies, “Not this time Mel. You did it yourself.”
The film ends with one of the happiest endings it could’ve had. Knox wants to turn his life around by becoming a father, and he adopts Roger and JP both.
Some films stick with us because of their unbelievable stories, or their lush cinematography, and then again, some films stick with us merely because they came to us at exactly the right time in our lives. For me, Angels In The Outfield was one of those films. A helicopter parent might’ve viewed this film and said, “I don’t want my kids watching a film where children’s fathers leave them and where real angels get involved in baseball games.” But as it turns out, none of those things are what made the film impactful for me. The impact of the film came from watching the gradual renewal of so many broken characters, simply because they had someone to believe in them. For me, the magic of seeing an angel in a baseball game was nothing compared to the miracle of seeing someone like Mel Clark believe in himself again, even if just for one moment. Those are the stories I want my children to know, and if it takes believing in angels to believe that a person can be renewed, then as they say in the film, “You’ve got to believe.”