Sam Malone’s Lucky Bottle Cap

A guy walks into a bar.

It’s an introduction to the classic setup and punch line joke format.  It’s also the way that many episodes of Cheers began.

An NBC situation comedy set in an eponymous Boston bar modeled after the Bull & Finch Pub, Cheers took place largely within the confines of the bar where everybody knows your name.  Sam “Mayday” Malone, a former relief pitcher with the Boston Red Sox, owns Cheers.  There is a twist, however—Sam is a recovering alcoholic.

Débuting on September 30, 1982, Cheers boasted an ensemble cast featuring Ted Danson as Sam; Shelley Long as Diane Chambers, a waitress priding herself on her intellect, refinement, and appreciation for culture; George Wendt as beer-guzzling accountant Norm Peterson; John Ratzenberger as self-professed know-it-all mailman Cliff Clavin; Nicholas Colasanto as endearing but absent-minded Ernie “Coach” Pantusso, Sam’s former coach; and Rhea Perlman as Carla Tortelli—a fierce advocate for Sam, a nasty nemesis of Diane, and a sarcastic talker to first-time customers and regulars alike.

Though it was not initially successful in the Nielsen ratings, Cheers evolved into a prime time powerhouse lasting for 11 seasons.  The guy who walks into Cheers in the first season episode “Endless Slumper” is Rick Walker, a Red Sox relief pitcher suffering a downturn on the pitching mound, worrying about his future in baseball, and receiving boos from the Cheers patrons upon his entrance.

Rick credits his coach with the idea of seeking advice from Sam about his recent travails.  “He said if anyone knows about slumps, it’s you,” explains Rick.  It is a dire situation, indeed.  Sam suggests finding a new ritual to break up his routine, perhaps carrying a lucky charm; a bottle cap was Sam’s talisman.  The former Red Sox pitcher turned bar owner reveals, “Well, it was a bottle cap that I found once.  For some reason, I picked it up and I started carrying it around with me.  After awhile, I guess I figured it had something to do with things going my way.”

Sam carries it with him, still.  Acceding to Rick’s plea to borrow the bottle cap, Sam suffers a notable setback.  Earlier in the episode, Sam demonstrated his bar slide—sending a mug of beer down the bar so it makes a 90-degree turn.  After Rick leaves Cheers, Cliff orders a beer.  Sam’s bar slide fails, the mug goes off the end of the bar, and the bar’s customers look aghast when the mug crashes on the floor.

Rick’s luck takes a 180-degree turn—he gets three saves and two wins in two weeks.  When Diane implores Coach about about the bottle cap’s import to Sam, Coach explains that Sam never won a game because of the bottle cap.  In fact, it had nothing to do with baseball.  But Coach refuses to divulge further.

Sam’s luck also does a 180-degree turn, but in the other direction—locking his keys in his car, exploding his television by leaving it too close to the heater, burning his hands on the coffee pot.  The bad luck streak inspires the Cheers gang to have a pool on mishaps, which includes scrapes and nicks while shaving.  Norm strongly encourages Sam to get the bottle cap returned.  “For the first time in my life, I’d rather be me than you,” declares Norm.

As Sam reaches for the phone to call Rick, Cliff informs him that Red Sox game just started.  It lasts 21 innings, thereby raising Sam’s tension because he’s increasingly desperate to get the bottle cap from Rick who wins the game.  When it ends, Sam calls Fenway Park and leaves a message for Rick.

With Carla, Coach, Norm, and Cliff having already called it a night, Sam and Diane are alone in the bar, leaving Sam the opportunity to tell the whole story about the bottle cap.  “It’s the cap off the last bottle of beer I ever drank.  Last anything I ever drank,” discloses Sam.  “I remember holding on to that bottle cap during some pretty rough nights.  I’d wake up in the morning and I’d have its imprint in my palm.  I mean it was flat because I was squeezing it so hard.  When I was tempted to have a drink, sometimes I’d look at the bottle cap.  And it would stop me.”

It’s a rare scene of raw emotion for Cheers, intensified when Sam says, “You want to know something really crazy?  Last couple of nights I have really had an urge to have a drink.”  When Rick returns the call, Sam discovers, to his terror, that the former slumping relief pitcher lost the bottle cap in Kansas City on a road trip.  It augments Sam’s urge to return to alcohol.  Diane tries to stop Sam, but to no avail.  He pours himself a mug of beer; a close-up shot of the mug enhances the dramatic moment.  To Diane’s relief, Sam attempts a bar slide, which succeeds.  “I guess I gave the wrong one to Rick,” says Sam.

A version of this article appeared on www.thesportspost.com on December 2, 2015.

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