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

Former sports journalist Danny Knobler with his family in his sports bar Danny's Sports Bar in Pattaya, Thailand. (Courtesy Danny Knobler)
Danny Knobler has always wanted to visit Japan, and after covering pitcher Masao Kida's rookie year with the Detroit Tigers in 1999, the sports journalist booked a trip to explore the country and meet Japanese reporters with them the following January he had made friends.
Since he would be in the neighborhood and could extend his vacation, Knobler checked a map to see where else his frequent flyer miles could lead him in Asia.
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"I saw Bangkok and you didn't need a visa to get there. It was warm and I knew I liked Thai food," said Knobler, the Tigers beatwriter for Booth Newspapers from Michigan. "So I thought," Why not? "I booked an extra week in Thailand and ... I'm here 20 years later."
That drive to his itinerary was life changing for Knobler, a Los Angeles native and UCLA graduate who gave up his 35-year baseball writing career in 2018 to open a sports bar in Pattaya, Thailand, a roughly 90-year-old vacation town Miles southeast of Bangkok.
59-year-old Knobler and his wife Sirirat Instasuk, whom he met on his first trip to Thailand and married in 2007, opened Danny's Sports Bar in January 2019, a cozy pub two blocks from the beach in the heart of Pattaya's vibrant nightlife.
The open-air house is so small that 20 customers feel like a crowd. There are seven bar stools, four high-top tables, a pool table, and four flat-screen TVs that are usually set for European football games, Formula 1 racing, rugby, NFL, and NBA games, and the occasional baseball game.
US and Thailand flags are pinned to the ceiling. Scarves from UCLA and the English Premier League teams Tottenham and Liverpool are among the wall decorations. A large bronze bell hangs over the bar, which is a staple in many pubs in Thailand.
"When you ring the doorbell," says Knobler during a FaceTime tour of the pub, "buy a round of drinks for everyone in the bar."
The pub reopened on August 1st after being closed for 4½ months due to the coronavirus. Danny has resumed normal operating hours - from 4:00 p.m. until 5 a.m. and sometimes later depending on the business, seven nights a week - thanks in large part to Thailand's COVID shredding capabilities.
Although it was the first country outside of China to register cases of COVID-19, Thailand, with a population of 70 million, recorded just 4,000 cases and 60 deaths before a recent shrimp market outbreak near Bangkok increased the daily cases of 34 on Jan. December increased to 18, 576 on December 19.
Pattaya residents have not had to wear masks or social distancing in bars and restaurants for months. Knobler's clientele consists mainly of retired expats living in the region, English-speaking service workers and - before Thailand closed its borders in the spring - tourists.
His regulars include a retired deputy sheriff from Portland, Oregon, a former customs agent in LAX, an IT specialist from Boston, and a correction officer from Fresno.
"I still interact with people from probably 20 different countries every week," said Knobler, who does not speak Thai, apart from a few rudimentary sentences. "When the tourists are here, we get people from 50 different countries into the bar every month."
Knobler's wife, nicknamed "Lek", runs the bar with her daughter Sorn and her son-in-law Nirutch, the head bartender. Knobler's retirement visa allows him to live in the country year round, but he is not allowed to work because he is not a Thai citizen.
"In sports writing, you have to be able to talk to someone, and in a bar you have to do the same."
Danny Knobler
"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 played run on TV. "
Though he came of age in the 1980s, Knobler said he had no latent desire to repeat Ted Danson's role as 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 as a national baseball columnist for CBSSports.com (2008-13) and Bleacher Report (2014-18) to know what he liked and what what not? Not like in a pub.
Decades of navigation through the sometimes treacherous waters of a clubhouse in a big league, interacting with the different personalities of the sport and responding to angry readers helped him prepare for his new appearance.
"In sports writing you have to be able to talk to someone, and in a bar you have to do the same," Knobler said. "And you have to develop a thick skin because just like a ballpoint pen when you have a bar, people shoot you and many of them anonymously online. This is how you learn to deal with people who just want to jerk you off."
An occasional negative Yelp review didn't deter Knobler or diminish 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 did Pattaya's relaxed, festive atmosphere and cosmopolitan feel.
Danny's Sports Bar has customers from dozens of countries every month. (Danny Knobler)
Although it is a smaller town with around 120,000 inhabitants, Pattaya's selection of ethnic restaurants and food trucks gives it an international flair.
"I definitely feel like he's enjoying the life he's having," said Bob Lorenz, studio host for the New York Yankees' YES Network, who took an overnight trip to Pattaya while he and his wife were going to a wedding in February were in Bangkok.
“Just speaking to Danny, he seemed very happy. He's his own boss, which probably helps. He likes to deal with his customers. It was great to learn his story, how he met his wife, and how they decided to just wrap her up and move on. "
:: ::
Knobler was on the last stop of a pub crawl in Pattaya in 2000 when he met Lek visiting a friend at the bar. Knobler was single. Lek recently divorced with four children.
"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 United States and became an American citizen, but she maintained her home in Pattaya. The couple moved to New York City in 2008, but when Knobler was fired from CBSSports.com in 2013, they spent the winters in Pattaya.
Knobler freelanced for Bleacher Report for baseball for five years. When the website cut its jobs and paid 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 first lease, furniture, lights and fans, system TVs and housewares for the bar, as well as internet service and cable and satellite TV packages. His monthly rent is about $ 600.
Knobler said the bar made a profit every month before and after it closed, although revenue this year is 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)
Similar to the US, Thailand's tourism industry has been decimated by the pandemic. Many hotels, bars and restaurants are temporarily or permanently closed. Popular destinations like Phuket, Ko Samui, and Ko Phi Phi, Knobler said, are like ghost towns.
Danny's stayed afloat mainly because of its low overheads - there is no air conditioning, no low utility bills, and no meal services, just bottled beer and cocktails - and its loyal local clientele.
"There are a couple of great indoor sports bars here, but they're fighting right now because there aren't enough people here to support them," Knobler said. “We know almost all of our customers by name. Many of them are good friends.
"It's not the same people every day, but the same group of people who come. Especially in good times there is a jubilant atmosphere."
:: ::
These may not be booming times for Danny's Sports Bar, but it would be a lot worse without Thailand's skillful handling of COVID.
The country was almost completely closed from mid-March to May, with a nationwide ban on alcohol sales that was strictly enforced. Curfew as well as mask and social distancing requirements. The bars were closed until June, some until July.
International flights to Thailand were essentially suspended for nine months before the country eased travel restrictions on citizens of 56 countries on Dec. 18 to boost tourism.
Travelers still need a certificate stating that they are COVID-free 72 hours prior to travel, and they must drive 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 who come. Especially in good times there is a jubilant atmosphere."
Danny Knobler
"Except for grocery stores in April and May, everything was closed," said Knobler. "The [case] numbers kept going down until they finally hit zero, and they stayed near zero for a whole month before things opened up."
The restaurants were allowed to open on June 1st with mandatory temperature controls and social distancing. Many bars opened on July 1st. Knobler, who spent much of the shutdown organizing weekly freebies for unemployed locals, reopened his pub on Aug. 1.
"Aside from having to wear a mask to go to a store, we're really just leading normal lives - you don't think too much about the virus here," Knobler said. "I think people took it seriously and it's a different culture. People were asked to do things to help everyone and ... not everyone followed, but obviously enough of them."
Of course, things are very different in the United States, where 18.4 million cases and 325,000 deaths related to coronavirus were recorded as of December 23, and many refuse to wear masks or follow safety protocols.
"Often times it feels like we're on another planet," said Knobler, a 1979 graduate of University High in West Los Angeles. "We don't work the same way. When I talk to friends and family [in the US] I feel a lot of frustration and the difficulties people face."
:: ::
It's after 4 a.m. in Pattaya. When Knobler ends a two-hour conversation with a reporter in Los Angeles, a friend from England walks into the bar with his wife.
"We'll 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 hand in a few minutes."
The less traveled road has taken Knobler to the other side of the world, about 13,000 kilometers away, to a life that he could never have imagined two decades ago.
Still, he somehow found himself in a place where everyone knows his name. He is stress free, fulfilled, and has no intention of returning to the US.
"I'll come to visit," said Knobler, "but I love it here. This is home."
This story originally appeared in the Los Angeles Times.

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