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Former sportswriter lives the good life after opening a bar in Thailand

Former sportswriter Danny Knobler with his family at his sports bar, Danny's Sports Bar, in Pattaya, Thailand.
(Courtesy of Danny Knobler)

Danny Knobler had always wanted to visit Japan, and after covering pitcher Masao Kida’s rookie year with the Detroit Tigers in 1999, the sportswriter booked a trip the following January to explore the country and catch up with Japanese reporters he‘d befriended.

Since he would be in the neighborhood and could extend his vacation, Knobler checked a map to see where else in Asia his frequent-flyer miles could take him.

“I saw Bangkok, and you didn’t need a visa to go there, it was warm, and I knew I liked Thai food,” said Knobler, the Tigers beat writer for Michigan-based Booth Newspapers at the time. “So, I thought, ‘Why not?’ I booked an extra week in Thailand and … 20 years later, here I am.”

That impulse addition to his itinerary was life-changing for Knobler, a Los Angeles native and UCLA graduate who in 2018 gave up a 35-year career as a baseball writer to open a sports bar in Pattaya, Thailand, a resort city located about 90 miles southeast of Bangkok.

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Knobler, 59, and his wife, Sirirat Instasuk — whom he met on that first Thailand trip and married in 2007 — opened Danny’s Sports Bar, a cozy pub two blocks from the beach in the heart of Pattaya’s vibrant nightlife district, in January 2019.

The open-air establishment is so small that 20 customers feels like a crowd. There are seven bar stools, four high-top tables, a pool table and four flat-screen televisions, which are usually tuned in to European soccer matches, Formula 1 races, rugby, NFL and NBA games and an occasional baseball game.

U.S. and Thailand flags are pinned to the ceiling. Scarves from UCLA and English Premier League teams Tottenham and Liverpool are among the wall decorations. A large bronze bell, a staple in many Thailand pubs, hangs above the bar.

“If you ring the bell,” Knobler says during a FaceTime tour of the pub, “you’re buying a round of drinks for everyone in the bar.”

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Disingenuous choruses of ‘stick to sports’ — as if race and sports have ever been separate issues — rang particularly hollow this year.

The pub reopened Aug. 1 after a 4½-month shutdown because of the coronavirus. Danny’s has resumed normal operating hours — from 4 p.m. to 5 a.m. and sometimes later, depending on business, seven nights a week — thanks in large part to Thailand’s COVID-crushing capabilities.

Though it was the first country outside China to register cases of COVID-19, Thailand, with a population of 70 million, recorded only 4,000 cases and 60 deaths before a recent shrimp market outbreak near Bangkok boosted daily cases from 34 on Dec. 18 to 576 on Dec. 19.

Pattaya residents have not had to wear masks or socially distance in bars and restaurants for months. Knobler’s clientele consists primarily of retired expats living in the area, English-speaking service-industry workers and — before Thailand shut its borders in the spring — tourists.

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Among his regulars are a retired sheriff’s deputy from Portland, Ore., a former customs agent at LAX, an IT specialist from Boston and a corrections officer from Fresno.

“I interact with people from probably 20 different countries every week, even now,” said Knobler, who does not speak Thai, outside of a few rudimentary phrases. “When the tourists are here, we get people from 50 different countries in the bar every month.”

Knobler’s wife, nicknamed “Lek,” runs the bar with her daughter, Sorn, and son-in-law, Nirutch, the head bartender. Knobler’s retirement visa allows him to live in the country year-round, but he’s not allowed to work because he is not a Thai citizen.

“In sportswriting, you have to be able to go up and talk to anybody, and in a bar, you have to do the same thing.”

Danny Knobler

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“We talked about getting a work permit, but … um … I don’t want to work,” Knobler said with a laugh. “I don’t go behind the bar. I don’t handle money. I don’t hire or fire people. My role is pretty simple. I come to the bar every day to talk to people and make sure the right games are on TV.”

Though he came of age in the 1980s, Knobler said he did not harbor a latent desire to reprise Ted Danson’s role of Sam Malone on the hit sitcom “Cheers.”

But he’d been to enough sports bars during his travels as a Tigers beat writer from 1990 to 2008 and a national baseball columnist for CBSSports.com (2008-13) and Bleacher Report (2014-18) to know what he liked and didn’t like in a pub.

Decades of navigating the sometimes-treacherous waters of a big league clubhouse, interacting with the disparate personalities of the sport and responding to angry readers helped prepare him for his new gig.

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“In sportswriting, you have to be able to go up and talk to anybody, and in a bar, you have to do the same thing,” Knobler said. “And you have to develop a thick skin, because just like when you’re a ball writer, if you have a bar, people take shots at you, and a lot of them anonymously online. So you learn how to deal with people who just want to run you down.”

An occasional negative Yelp review hasn’t deterred Knobler or diminished his love for his adopted country. Thailand’s tropical climate suits Knobler—“I haven’t put on long pants or socks since July 2019,” he said — as does Pattaya’s laid-back, festive atmosphere and cosmopolitan feel.

Danny's Sports Bar has customers from dozens of countries each month.
(Danny Knobler)

Though it’s a smaller city, with a population of about 120,000, Pattaya’s array of ethnic restaurants and food trucks give it an international flavor.

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“I definitely got that vibe, like he’s enjoying the life he has,” said Bob Lorenz, the New York Yankees’ YES Network studio host who took an overnight trip to Pattaya while he and his wife were in Bangkok for a wedding in February.

“Just talking to Danny, he seemed very happy. He’s his own boss, which probably helps. He enjoys engaging with his clientele. It was great getting to know his story, how he met his wife and how they decided to just pack it up and head on over.”

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Knobler was on the last stop of a Pattaya pub crawl in 2000 when he met Lek, who was visiting a friend at the bar. Knobler was single. Lek was recently divorced, with four kids.

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“It was the end of the night, and her friend was trying to get me to go with her,” Knobler said. “I wasn’t interested. Lek and I started talking. We got married seven years later.”

Lek moved to the U.S. and became an American citizen, but she maintained her house in Pattaya. The couple moved to New York City in 2008, but when Knobler was laid off by CBSSports.com in 2013, they began spending winters in Pattaya.

Knobler covered baseball as a freelancer for Bleacher Report for five years. When the website cut his assignments and pay after the 2018 season, Knobler and Lek decided to live permanently in Thailand, where the cost of living is much lower.

Knobler pulled $30,000 from his retirement savings to secure the initial lease, furniture, light fixtures and fans, point-of-sale system TVs, and housewares for the bar, as well as internet service and cable and satellite TV packages. His monthly rent is about $600.

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Knobler said the bar has turned a profit every month it has been open, before and after the shutdown, though revenues this year are down 15% to 20% from 2019.

“We know almost all of our customers by name," says Danny Knobler, owner of Danny's Sports Bar.
(Danny Knobler)

Much like the U.S., Thailand’s tourism industry has been decimated by the pandemic. Many hotels, bars and restaurants have closed temporarily or permanently. Popular destinations such as Phuket, Ko Samui and Ko Phi Phi, Knobler said, are like ghost towns.

Danny’s has stayed afloat primarily because of its low overhead costs — there is no air conditioning, keeping utility bills down, and no food service, just bottled beer and cocktails — and its loyal local clientele.

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“There’s a couple of big indoor sports bars here, but they’re struggling right now because there aren’t enough people here to support them,” Knobler said. “We know almost all of our customers by name. A lot of them are good friends.

“It’s not the same people every day, but the same group of people that come. In good times, especially, it has a Cheers-like atmosphere.”

::

These may not be boom times for Danny’s Sports Bar, but things would be a lot worse if not for Thailand’s deft handling of COVID.

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The country shut down almost entirely from the middle of March through May, with a nationwide ban on alcohol sales, a strictly enforced 10 p.m. curfew, and mask and social distancing requirements. Bars were closed through June, some through July.

International flights into Thailand were essentially barred for nine months before the country eased travel restrictions for citizens from 56 countries Dec. 18 in a bid to boost tourism.

Travelers still need a certificate to show they are COVID-free 72 hours before travel, and they must go directly from the airport to a quarantine hotel for two weeks.

“It’s not the same people every day, but the same group of people that come. In good times, especially, it has a Cheers-like atmosphere.”

Danny Knobler

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“Everything was closed except for food stores in April and May,” Knobler said. “The [case] numbers kept going down until they finally hit zero, and they remained near zero for a full month before things started opening.”

Restaurants were allowed to open June 1 with mandatory temperature checks and social distancing. Many bars opened July 1. Knobler, who spent much of the shutdown organizing weekly food giveaways for out-of-work locals, reopened his pub Aug. 1.

“Now, except for having to wear a mask to go into a store, we really just live a normal life — you don’t think that much about the virus here,” Knobler said. “I think people took it seriously, and it’s a different culture. People were told to do things to help everybody and … not everybody followed it, but obviously enough of them did.”

It’s a far different story, of course, in the U.S., where, as of Dec. 23, 18.4 million cases and 325,000 coronavirus-related deaths have been recorded and many refuse to wear masks or follow safety protocols.

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“A lot of times, it feels like we’re on another planet here,” said Knobler, a 1979 graduate of University High in West Los Angeles. “We’re not operating the same way. When I talk to friends and family [in the U.S.] I sense a lot of frustration, and the difficulties people are dealing with.”

::

It’s past 4 a.m. in Pattaya. As Knobler finishes a two-hour conversation with a reporter in Los Angeles, a friend from England walks into the bar with his wife.

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“We’re gonna be here for a while, playing music and hanging out,” Knobler said. “We’re not going anywhere. We’re still open. I’m sure I’ll have a beer in my hand in a few minutes.”

The road less traveled has taken Knobler to the other side of the world, some 8,000 miles away, to a life he never would have imagined two decades ago.

Yet, he has somehow found himself in a place where everybody knows his name. He’s stress-free, fulfilled and has no intention of moving back to the U.S.

“I’ll come back for a visit,” Knobler said, “but I love it here. This is home.”


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