Gee, this turned out to be lengthy – I hope you guys like it, and don't find it completely ridiculous! We get so many tantalizing little hints about these characters' pasts, none of which are ever fleshed out to the satisfaction of a fanatic like me, so I took it upon myself to expand on Sam's backstory. I find it so intriguing to imagine him as a child and young man, and delve into the root of all his weird insecurities and issues. If you read this, please do tell me your thoughts, and even more importantly tell me whatever backstories you've cooked up for any of the Cheers gang (I know you have!) They're such great characters, and I think it's so fun to wonder about.
Sam's grandfather immigrated to Boston as a child at the turn of the 20th century, and the family settled into one of the city's Irish enclaves and established themselves there as members of the working class community. The general discrimination against Irish immigrants made money hard to come by, and the Depression - which began during Sam's father's adolescence – created additional financial hardship. The family lost most of their meager savings after the stock market crashed, and Sam's father – having gone from a working class but nonetheless stable environment to one of utter poverty – subsequently developed into a very hardened character. He was shrewd, endlessly bitter towards the upper classes, and fixated with making money. The discrimination he encountered as a youth made him feel that he needed to prove himself to the world, and his marriage – to another Irish-American, but one whose family had been in the country much longer and was by that point comfortably middle-class – he saw almost as a conquest. His in-laws always resented him; they felt their daughter, who was college-educated and pretty successfully integrated into the great "melting pot" of American society, had married beneath her standing.
Mrs. Malone did love her husband initially, although in truth he did very little to deserve her affection. She was fascinated by his unending anger, and his conviction that he had somehow been wronged – he was utterly unlike anyone she had ever encountered, and for that reason he held a definite allure. She also had a bit of a rebellious streak; at university she evolved into kind of a bleeding-heart liberal, and she liked to read. Sinclair Lewis and Sherwood Anderson were fixtures on her bookshelf, but she was most compelled by Dos Passos and his depiction of the Communist movement, the first Red Scare, and the general plight of the working class – and so Sam's father was also a means for her to become better acquainted with these issues in the flesh, so to speak. Although her background prevented her from dabbling too directly in any fringe political affairs, she always held a great deal of sympathy for these groups and followed politics closely. When the Rosenbergs were executed, she cried. Sam's father said something along the lines, of "Let 'em fry!"
Despite his background, Sam's father never once expressed any interest in Communism or the greater problems that plagued the working class. His sense of entitlement, and feeling of having been wronged, was so expressly personal that he never understood his suffering as indicative of something bigger - and were this brought to his attention, he would not particularly care. He did not follow politics because he loathed and distrusted all politicians; even Kennedy's election was no triumph in his eyes. He hated the rich, because they had money and he didn't, but he hated the poor even more ardently, for being exactly what he didn't want to be. In the wartime economy some windows of opportunity opened, and he seized them. In the aftermath of the war he continued to have relative success as a businessman, and focused almost all his attention on making money. At this point, the novelty of the marriage had worn off and his wife was becoming dissatisfied with him; they had very little in common, he was emotionally aloof and sometimes cruel, and she felt stifled and bored as a housewife. To pass the time, she continued reading a lot, and also started to drink more than she let on.
Derek's birth at the end of the war was a welcome reprieve for the family; Mr. Malone saw him as an extension of himself, and a means through which to continue his "conquest" of the society that had wronged him, while Mrs. Malone enjoyed being a mother and felt less lonely with the company of her young son. Derek was a continual delight to both his parents: bright, handsome, a good athlete, obedient, and generally well-mannered and likeable. Only when interacting with Derek did Mr. Malone reveal any semblance of warmth or compassion; he was indifferent towards almost everyone in his life, but he clearly loved his son and treated him with nothing but affection and pride. Like his marriage and business successes, Derek was another "triumph," but however convoluted his motivations were, they made him an incredibly caring and devoted father where his firstborn son was concerned.
Sam – who was born two years later – never held the same intrigue for Mr. Malone, because he had already begun to cultivate his "successor" in Derek, and the boys were not much alike in looks or character. Nothing came as easily to Sam, and so Mr. Malone began to see him as largely unnecessary in the context of his ambitions. From this emerged Sam's sense of inferiority, and his relationship with his father was always strained. However, Derek was more or less a loving brother, and Sam did not begin to actively resent him until he was older; as children they got along well, and Sam saw him almost as an idol. He wanted to be Derek, and was distressed by the fact that he could never do anything as adeptly, so he began to rebel against the institutions that made him feel like a failure. The first manifestation of this was school – very early on he gave up on his education, opting instead to become more of a class clown, and his continual shortcomings in the realm of academia enraged his father. Derek and his mother, meanwhile, responded to his behavior with more of a quiet concern. Sports were his only comfort; although Derek was still better (mostly by virtue of being older), he was still among the best athletes in his grade, and the approval of his peers gave him his first taste of success. As he aged, he grew increasingly dependent on their acceptance, and relished being included as one of the "jocks."
Sam's mother always adored Derek – and was especially pleased with his forays into the arts – but unlike Mr. Malone did not seem to love her older son at the exclusion of her younger son. For Sam she harbored a deeper affection, almost akin to what she had once felt towards his father; she was moved by his restlessness, his need to prove himself, and saw beneath his bravado a strange sensitivity that Derek lacked. It seemed to her that he was perpetually unhappy – that, perhaps, his nature and environment had doomed him to be unhappy forever – and it occurred to her that Mr. Malone was inflicting upon him an irreversible disservice. But she was powerless to stop it; she could only respond to this realization by doting on him, and being generally very lenient, so he came to see her as a kind of "foil" to his father. He wanted his father's approval more than anything, but it was very much conditional, whereas his mother's affection was unconditional - she would applaud his successes even when they were minor, and even though they had nothing to do with anything she cared about (like the arts). So as he grew up he became very protective of his mother, and this fed his resentment towards his father.
Derek stopped playing baseball in high school to concentrate on other interests, among which were drama and debate. Although Mr. Malone had no interest in art or politics, by this point he approved of just about everything his elder son decided to do, and saw it as a way for the family to subvert the bourgeois sensibilities he had always resented. This provided Sam with his first opportunity to really shine; even as a freshman he was one of the most talented pitchers on his school's team, and his father seemed genuinely proud of him – although his pride was always intermixed with the suggestion that Sam could still be better. It was at this time that a rift began between Sam and Derek; he was painfully jealous of Derek's continued success and maddened by the fact that Derek was always so nice to him, refusing to acknowledge his seemingly obvious superiority. He felt – perhaps incorrectly – that Derek was privately gloating. He rejected most of Derek's pursuits without trying them, suspecting that he would fail, but at the same time it upset him that he couldn't succeed in the things that his mother loved. This only increased his fear of failure, and his resistance towards the arts, because he was terrified of letting her down.
Sam was by no means a notorious Lothario in high school, but being a handsome athlete he had a handful of very attractive girlfriends – although he could never quite take them seriously as people. He had little interest in committing to anyone, but given his youth, nothing about this was problematic. As a senior he settled into a fairly monogamous relationship with one of the most popular girls in school, a partnership that both enjoyed because it boosted their social standing among their peers – but they had very little in common, and he certainly would not have considered her a friend. The only opinions he took seriously were those of his baseball teammates, and more subconsciously that of his mother, who was the only woman he actually respected. For him there was always a strange disconnect in how he perceived women, because he saw his mother as a person but he could not extend this to his girlfriends – they were accessories, and it also did not occur to him that they saw him in a similar way.
As a high school pitcher, Sam relied most heavily on his fastball – which he threw hard, in the mid-90s. His control wasn't great, but it was good enough, and for the most part he didn't even need specialty pitches to dominate the other teams. With some urging from a coach he began to work on a curveball, but his success made him cocky and he only put half-hearted effort into it, believing it unnecessary. At the beginning of his senior year he caught the attention of a scout; he had a plus fastball, the right look for a pitcher, and the scout believed he had the potential to develop a major-league-acceptable specialty pitch or two. He was drafted soon after, and dropped out in time for spring training.
Nowadays it is generally considered imprudent to draft pitchers out of high school, because it is a volatile stage in their development and usually they are better suited to pitch in college first. But in the mid-1960s these scouting innovations had not yet been spearheaded, and so Sam was touted from the start as a young phenom. He was expected to be a starter, near the top of the rotation, and it was anticipated that his major league debut would arrive quickly. But although he was dominant in rookie ball, as he progressed through the ranks of the minor leagues his progress slowed. His coaches made it clear to him that he needed to fully develop at least one additional pitch, so he returned to working on the curve and also began to cultivate a slider. The curveball turned out to be decent and the slider was deadly – no one could hit it, and when he set it up with the fastball, it was a great strikeout pitch.
He played in the minors for five seasons, and was nearly twenty-two when he finally arrived in Triple-A. It was a much slower trajectory than anyone had anticipated, but he left a positive impression on his coaches and they believed that he would be ready for the majors by 1970. But in Triple-A he encountered yet another obstacle; however much he altered his mechanics, he could not for the life of him maintain the velocity or control of his fastball past three innings. It became clear that he would never be a starter, but the coaches thought he might still have an important role out of the bullpen. It was a huge blow for him – he had dreamed of being the ace of the Red Sox rotation – but in time he warmed up to the idea of being a hot-shot closer, as long as it meant he'd finally see the big leagues. And at some point during his stint in the minor leagues, he married his high school girlfriend; she wanted to, and a lot of his friends were getting married, so it seemed like the thing to do. But they never saw much of each other, and on the road his eye would wander more often than not.
Sam's big league debut went as well as anyone could have expected, and for his first few seasons he was lights-out, easily snagging the closer role for himself. He made a solitary All-Star appearance during his second season, and garnered a few stray Cy Young votes as well. Always eager to impress his teammates, he was also a beloved figure in the clubhouse, leading the nightly, post-game carousing. This was when drinking and womanizing became a much bigger part of his persona – he sometimes forgot that he even had a wife – but nonetheless he still saw it as very much under control and he didn't use alcohol to deal with the stress of the game. There wasn't a lot of initial stress, because he was so effective, but as time went on and hitters adjusted to him, his effectiveness began to diminish just slightly. His coaches encouraged him to keep making his own adjustments, but he shrugged them off – he was afraid to change what he was doing, because it had always worked in the past, and his pride also got in the way.
He mostly fell out of touch with his family during his playing days, although they attended his big league debut (his mother praised him endlessly and his father said something to the effect of, "You couldn't be a starter?") Although he was marginally aware that his mother's drinking was getting worse, he didn't see it as a significant issue and felt even less that he was in a position to intervene. In the mid-1970s she died of an alcohol-related ailment, and it came as a huge shock to him – but he responded initially with stoicism, mentioning it to no one and going out to pitch anyway. It wound up being one of his worst outings to date, and as it had come after a succession of less-promising-than-usual performances, the manager decided that he must have some kind of elbow strain and put him on the fifteen-day disabled list. The embarrassment of this, coupled with the shock of his mother's death, caused his drinking to escalate out of control for the first time. He showed up to the funeral drunk, which led to a rather dramatic altercation with his father. Derek – who was always rather sympathetic towards Sam, and felt bad about how their father openly favored him – tried to remedy the situation, but it only upset Sam further and he left vowing never to talk to his remaining family again.
In the aftermath of this his drinking continued to escalate and he began to use it to avoid dealing with his increasing failure as a pitcher. He inadvertently created a vicious cycle – he drank because his effectiveness was diminishing naturally, and it augmented the problems, leading him to drink more. Since cocaine and speed abuse were big issues in baseball during the pre-steroid era, I would imagine that he dabbled in these too – but his primary problem was always alcoholism. At this point his wife, who had become progressively more and more aware of his infidelity and general debauchery, demanded a divorce. Outwardly he was indifferent about this, but inwardly it created another crisis; it occurred to him that he had treated her as badly as his father treated his mother, and a new fear arose in his relationships with women. He didn't think it made much difference if he had meaningless flings – because those women he didn't ever really think of as people – but he was terrified of commitment, lest the resemblance to his father resurface. He actually was a lot more like his father – in looks and temperament – than Derek had been, and this realization disgusted him. An odd dichotomy also emerged, because he simultaneously craved meaningful love and approval from women (like that which he had received from his mother as a child), but at the same time feared having any meaningful interactions with women at all, because he didn't believe himself capable of reciprocating it. But this was not an altogether conscious realization – he was, after all, a drunk, and had always been well-versed in denial anyway.
Of course Coach came into the forefront during this time; he was the only member of the Red Sox who would openly acknowledge that Sam had a drinking problem, and continually urged him to stop. Initially this infuriated Sam, who didn't think he had a problem – and more significantly, was incredibly hesitant to address the origins of his drinking. But eventually he came to see Coach as a father figure, and opened up to him about his childhood. Their relationship was significant because Coach was, in many ways, the first positive male role model in Sam's life; he actively cared about Sam's well-being and didn't make him feel inferior. And unlike his baseball cronies, Coach seemed to understand that much of Sam's behavior was borne of insecurity, and didn't further encourage his decadence in the name of good fun – it might have been good fun for the other guys, but Sam was clearly on a self-destructive trajectory.
He also met Carla at the end of his baseball career. She was a devout fan who often stood outside the parking lot after games to see the players and get autographs, and so he started to recognize her. She was one of the few fans (rather than groupies) who remained loyal to him throughout his collapse, and as his career deteriorated before his eyes he became very appreciative of her devotion. They began to interact more and more, slowly becoming friends, and like Coach she filled a significant need for him at that point in his life. The approval he sought from her was unlike the approval he craved from his mother – he saw her more as one of the guys – but nonetheless he was always aware of the fact that she was a woman, and so her role was kind of hybridized. He never saw her sexually – she was always too pregnant for that – but he also never felt the compulsion to compete with her, as he did with other men. He liked that she understood baseball and appreciated him because he had once been a very talented pitcher, but also that her affection for him was not contingent on his success. He found some comfort in hearing her relate her own unfortunate past; her attitude (beneath the Carla-isms about a vengeful God and lots of spiritualist mumbo jumbo) was that bad things happened and you couldn't do anything about them, so you had to keep moving on. One of the reasons he bought Cheers was to give her a job (the other reason was that he was drunk), and her "wisdom" was a consolation to him when his career finally disintegrated into nothing and he couldn't play anymore. Soon after his pitching days ended he began to clean up his act, and he kept the bar for Carla's benefit – and later, for Coach as well.
Although his recovery from alcoholism was very successful, he never gave up the womanizing – both because it emerged from even deeper insecurities than the drinking, and because Carla and the barflies encouraged it (which is a bit of an oddity on its own, worth exploring, but I'll save it for another time!) The friendships he developed with the regulars at Cheers were also significant for him; they were much healthier than his earlier relationships because he didn't feel quite so compelled to prove himself to them – they more or less liked him regardless of what he did. He still wore that ol' mask of bravado for their benefit, but at the same time they genuinely cared about him and knew him well enough to recognize when his behavior was becoming self-destructive or inappropriate. So in many ways, the Cheers gang was his first family – it was the first time he had a meaningful system of "checks and balances" to keep himself from spiraling out of control.
I am also trying to devise a timeline for all this! I guess Sam was drafted in 1964 (when he was seventeen) and played his first major league season in 1970. I think he had four-or-so years of relative success (which brings us to 1974) and then maybe four or five additional years of decline (bringing us to 1979). He bought Cheers near the very end of his career, and I think he was "clean" and effectively running the bar by 1980. So it'd been around for about three years at the start of season one. Does that work for you guys? Or do you think he had it longer? I think he must have had a reasonably long baseball career just based on the fact that he expects to be recognized and a lot of the bar patrons say that he was "loved" by the city of Boston. And since relievers are generally more overlooked than other baseball players, it makes sense that he would be at least for a time in the most prominent bullpen role (the closer). Although at one point in the show someone says something about him facing a Yankee hitter twice in one game (which would clearly require more than one inning) so my interpretation of this is that as his effectiveness diminished he was relegated to middle relief, a kind of volatile inning-eater in games that could go either way.
My biggest curiosity about Sam is where all his issues and insecurities regarding women came from, and so I was trying to fill in the gaps with this. I like the idea that his relationship with Diane could kind of subtly mirror his father's relationship with his mother, because it gives some (non-canon, of course) context for why he struggled with it so much. I envision both he and his father as people who are made very restless and unhappy by their insecurities, and it causes them to behave in self-destructive or violent ways; and he never felt that his father deserved his mother, so it feeds into his own belief that he doesn't really deserve Diane. And I think his inability to forgive his father, or attempt to understand his father's behavior, prevents him from recognizing his own insecurities and "forgiving" himself.
I also like the idea that his mother would provide him with a kind of "ideal" for feminine love that he is constantly looking to fulfill. Sorry guys, I am not trying to make Sam into a creepy Oedipus/Paul Morel/Cliff Clavin sort of figure – but doesn't it make sense?! It is so odd that we hear a fair amount about how strained his relationship with his father is, and nothing about his mother – this makes me think that there has to be some kind of significant emotional issue with her that he doesn't want to address.
But I also think Diane challenges him a lot more than his mother-as-I-have-imagined-her ever did. While his mother indulged in a lot of guilt-related coddling, Diane forces him come face to face with his insecurities, and that accounts for a lot of the tension between them – he does the same to her, and in many ways their insecurities seem to overlap. I see Sam as someone who carries a lot of self-loathing deep down, and who sees himself (never consciously) as someone who is fundamentally undeserving of love. From his relationship with his father he thinks he has to prove himself – and earn love through his accomplishments – but what he really wants is someone who loves him because of, or in spite of, who he actually is, rather than whatever persona he projects. Both he and Diane (and later, Rebecca too) have these totally contrived projected selves, and over the course of the series they fall apart because they are too artificial to really be sustained. And all we are left with is, as Frasier might put it, the "abundant humanness" beneath; he just has to realize that this quality alone is worth something. Embrace your abundant humanness, Sam! You can do it!