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A review of ‘Angels in the Outfield’ 26 years in the making

I finally saw the 1994 baseball movie that I somehow avoided for more than a quarter-century.

I went into Angels in the Outfield wanting to hate it, but it still managed to tug at my heartstrings at various points.

I never saw the movie when it came out — the 1994 version, not the 1951 Angels in the Outfield, though I never saw that one either. I’ve seen various highlights over the years — the flapping of the arms, Christopher Lloyd bending the foul pole, Tony Danza’s interesting pitching motion — but for the most part the movie foreign to me, and after I missed the theater run it just sort of disappeared into the ether.

Maybe I was a cynical grump at the time; 18-year-old me probably was turned off by the formulaic schmaltz, though I’m not sure why. I’m a sucker for baseball movies, and I even cry at the end of Major League, which is a comedy. Notice I said cry in the present tense; when I hear “The Indians win it, the Indians win it, oh my god the Indians win it,” my tears start flowing, even now.

So Angels in the Outfield was under my radar over the years, but with no baseball to watch these days I decided to dive back in. Here are some observations I made during my initial viewing of the movie.

Future Oscar winners

I completely forgot that future Best Actor Academy Award winners Matthew McConaughey and Adrien Brody were baseball players in this movie. Brody played light-hitting defensive specialist Danny Hemmerling, whose wild pinch hit helped convince manager George Knox (played by Danny Glover) that actual angels were helping his team.

McConaughey played Angels center fielder Ben Williams, who was the first recipient of heavenly assistance in the movie with an absurd catch that was aided by a pair of angels carrying him several feet to make the play.

The catch did look very familiar though, an awful lot like the grab actual Angels center fielder Jim Edmonds made in 1997.

The best run in baseball history

The premise of the movie is that foster child Roger Bomman (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) wants to reunite with his father, a loathsome fellow who flippantly told his son they would be together again when the Angels, currently mired in last place, won the pennant.

Not to get pedantic here, but winning a pennant requires making the World Series, and even in 1993 before the wild card era, that required winning at least one round of the playoffs. But through several mentions in the movie, Angels in the Outfield uses “winning the pennant” as winning the division, so that’s what we’ll use here.

Best 35-game stretch, MLB history

Team Record Win %
Team Record Win %
1906 Cubs 33-2 0.943
Angels in the Outfield 33-2 0.943
2017 Indians 32-3 0.914
1912 Giants 31-4 0.886
1916 Yankees 31-4 0.886
1941 Yankees 31-4 0.886
1947 Yankees 31-4 0.886
1977 Royals 31-4 0.886
Thanks to the great Baseball-Reference play index

In a few montage segments, among the newspaper still shots we get, we see a few looks at the standings, which would have been in the old, seven-team American League West. Our first glimpse of these standings show the Angels at 39-52, a full 17 games behind the White Sox in the division.

The Angels make a gradual climb, with the help of angels and eventually by gelling as a team, and we get various glimpses of the standings throughout. At one point, they were shown to be 58-62, and still 15 games back of Chicago. Even a 19-10 stretch only saw them gain two games. But our last view of the standings comes with about one week remaining in the season, and it shows the Angels now just three games back, at 91-64.

I’m not sure what the Angels’ final record was, but they won at least 96 games. They lost their penultimate game to the White Sox before beating them the next night to stay ahead in the division. Since our final standings glimpse had Chicago at 94 wins, the White Sox won 95 games at minimum counting that last win over the Angels. California (they were the California Angels back then, not yet even the Anaheim Angels, nor the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim) finished ahead of Chicago, so they had to have won at least 96 games.

But even going from 58-62 to 91-64 is basically the greatest stretch in baseball history. Winning 33 out of 35 games is something that has happened only once in modern baseball history, and that was by the 1906 Cubs. Only 24 times since 1901 has a team won at least 30 games in a 35-game stretch, and yes I found that by searching year-by-year in the wonderful Baseball-Reference play index (specifically the n-game stretch tool).

More look-a-likes!

First we have Angels catcher Triscuitt Messmer, snapping an 0-for-26 skid with a heavenly-assisted home run, a swing that not only shatters his bat but also tore the cover off the ball. Let’s compare this to Jack Howell hitting a real-life broken-bat home run in 1987.

Then we have White Sox slugger Kit Kesey, who goes by the nickname “Hit or Die,” which is in the world of this movie is so prominent that he is even introduced on the road as “Kit Hit or Die Kesey.” Incredible. Hit or Die is played by actual major league player Carney Lansford, who added a layer by playing his movie role as a big, spitting meany.

He channeled another former major leaguer in the movies — 1982 AL Cy Young Award winner Pete Vuckovich, a pitcher who played fictional Yankees slugger Clu Haywood in Major League. In addition to both players being mean, mustachioed, and intense spitters, both led the AL in runs batted in.

The Angels announcer is pure evil

Angels announcer Ranch Wilder is played expertly by Jay O. Sander as a textbook villain. In addition to having the name Ranch Wilder, the announcer really has it in for Knox, the Angels manager.

Their hatred for each other is evident early in the film, when Knox punches Wilder during a postgame interview. As the movie progressed, it became more and more clear that Wilder deserved it.

The two had a history. Knox was a great catcher with the Reds, who won the 1979 NL MVP and graced at least one cover of Sports Illustrated during his playing days. It is later revealed that Wilder injured Knox with a slide at home plate, one that Knox still feels to this day was dirty and intentional.

Wilder’s clear disdain isn’t limited to Knox. The smarmy game caller with the fake smile also continually tries to limit his announcing partner, either by interrupting him or turning his microphone off. At one point when Wilder is yelling at the staff in the booth to give him information, he rips a book out of a researcher’s hand and says on his call, “I have personally checked the stats, sports fans, and Mel Clark hasn’t started a game this decade.”

Wilder gets his comeuppance in the end, but he was a perfect villain.

The kids make this movie

Why I ended up enjoying Angels in the Outfield, even though the ending could be seen from a mile away, is the kids are impossible to root against.

In addition to Roger, his friend and fellow foster child friend and roommate J.P. (played by Milton Davis Jr.) are both lovable and fun, and both have seen some shit, man. My heart broke at a couple points for J.P., when he said in hushed tones “I don’t like strangers” after giving his winning ticket stub to Roger; and later, when he hesitated on getting in Knox’s car for a ride home.

Roger explains that J.P. doesn’t ride in cars because he used to sleep in a car with his mom, which is just devastating thinking about the psychological pain he’s going through. Knox’s solution was to take both kids home by driving the team bus, and later uses a rented van. That was fun.

And also, poor Roger! He has to not only deal with a dad who wants no part of a life with him, but even the angels did him wrong. In the final game, the head angel Al (played by Lloyd) appears to Roger in the dugout, and explains there will be no heavenly help in the final game, that championships must be won without assistance. I haven’t checked the bible recently, maybe that’s in Leviticus.

But Al then tells Roger that pitcher Mel Clark (Tony Danza) will soon be joining the angels in six months, a byproduct of years of cigarette smoking. So this poor kid was saddled with the burden that a player is going to die soon, and he can’t tell anyone. Clark delivers a gutty performance before faltering in the ninth inning, and has to face Hit or Die with the bases loaded and two outs, up by a run. During a mound visit before Clark’s 160th pitch — the last major league pitcher to throw 160 pitches was knuckleballer Tim Wakefield in 1997, in case you were wondering — Roger and Knox concocted a plan to make Clark think he has angel support even though he didn’t.

So not only is Roger, whose main goal in wanting the Angels to win was to reunite with his dad, only to see that blow up in his face, forced to keep secret that a man will die soon, but also has to lie to him as well.

That’s when the infamous flapping scene ensues, starting with Roger (through tears!), then soon spreading to the Angels in the dugout, the fans in the stands, and even the cowboy hat-wearing team owner, a wannabe Gene Autry, the real Angels owner who would sell the team to Disney within a few years of this Disney film’s release. It was as clichéd an ending as possible, but damnit I cried.

You win, Angels in the Outfield.