Before moving to Thailand in 2019 to open a sports bar with his family, Danny Knobler wrote and talked about sports for 40 years all over the United States, working on newspapers, magazines and TV. He has covered a hundred World Series games as well as games in the World Baseball Classic in 2009, 2013 and last time around in Tokyo in 2017.
Read his full bio at the Conversations page
Steve – It’s technically the off-season (although there always seems to be baseball on somewhere these days) so we aren’t at a game; but if we were, where would we be? What’s your favorite venue to watch baseball?
Danny – It’s a question I get asked a lot, and I always struggle to give just one answer. There have been so many great ballparks built over the last 30 or so years, since Camden Yards opened in Baltimore. Speaking of which, it’s still hard to beat that park for a comfortable baseball atmosphere. I love an afternoon game in San Francisco. I grew up going to Dodger Stadium, so any game there is still special to me. And Fenway and Wrigley are in their own category.
But it’s the atmosphere at a game that makes all the difference. Citizens Bank Park in Philadelphia is hardly the best stadium in baseball. But the atmosphere there in 2008-10 (and from what I gather, again last year) was one of the best in baseball. As good a park as Camden Yards is, it was nowhere near as much fun when the Orioles were awful and attendance was down. I was fortunate enough to cover 100 World Series games, and no matter what city we were in, the atmosphere was pretty much always great.
Steve – What was the first baseball game you went to and what do you remember about it? Also, what was the first election you voted in? What do you think have been the most significant changes in both institutions since then?
Danny – It’s funny. So many people can pinpoint their very first game. I can’t. I know it was at Dodger Stadium, probably around 1969. I remember seeing Maury Wills steal bases. I have a vague memory of being there when Drysdale pitched (he retired after 1969).
But I would also agree with something Dan Shaughnessy once wrote in the Boston Globe on Opening Day. For our generation, going to the ballpark was about seeing the colors. The TVs of that era were either black and white, or the original color TVs that didn’t do the colors justice. You walked into the park and the grass looked so green. The Dodgers home uniforms have always looked whiter than white, and the blue helmets shined in the lights.
I turned 18 in 1979, so my first election was the 1980 presidential election between Carter and Reagan. My parents always disliked Reagan from his time as California governor, in part because of the way he treated the University of California system. I can’t remember much about the primaries and whether or not I liked Carter from early on, but I did vote for him in the general election.
The experience of going to a baseball game has changed some in the 50-some years since my first game, but I would think kids today would have a similar excitement about going to the ballpark.
One thing that has changed in many cities is how crowded it is at the ballpark. The 1969 Dodgers drew 1.7 million, or about 22,000 a game. That ranked second in the league behind the Mets, who averaged 26,529. The Padres that year averaged just 6,000 fans a game. Compare that to last year, when the Dodgers averaged 47,672, the Padres averaged 36,882 and all but four teams drew more than 1.7 million for the season.
The political scene has changed just as much, probably more. But I do think we tend to exaggerate how much polarization has increased. When I think back to 1980, the Republicans were pretty vicious on Carter, and the Democrats were not at all happy with Reagan. As with everything in society now, the opinions get shared more quickly and more widely through social media, but the feelings were pretty strong then, as well.
Steve – You get back to the US frequently enough that you haven’t been totally isolated – and your sports bar shows ball games every night during the season so you certainly see your fair share of baseball. But what’s it been like watching US politics from afar since you left – or is that something given recent years that has probably been a relief to escape from? Are you still registered to vote in NY?
Danny – I guess I’m going a bit against my previous answer, but I do really appreciate being more distant from the daily onslaught of US politics.
We get quite a few Americans in the bar, and even those from other countries often have strong opinions on Trump and Biden and other US leaders. So we can’t completely remove ourselves from it. But it’s not a daily issue here, and for some reason it seems much easier to be friendly here with people who hold diametrically opposed political views. So yes, I think you used the right word when you said “relief.” It does feel like a relief to be half a world away from it. Even though I could watch US television news every day, the fact is that when I’m here I very rarely turn it on.
I am registered as an overseas voter in New York. That means I am only eligible to vote in federal elections and not for any state or local offices or issues. Which makes sense, because while I do follow national politics, I don’t read very much at all about local New York issues, and as I don’t live there, they don’t impact me much at all.
Steve – With the latest World Baseball Classic getting under way and Japan – with the phenomenon that is Shohei Ohtani – again among the favorites, tell us a bit about the current state of baseball in Asia? Have you been to a game in Thailand since you’ve lived there? Maybe the one thing people might know about is the Johnny Damon connection, but what’s the current situation with baseball there?
There’s also another hugely popular London Series coming up, as MLB seeks to build on its program of globalization. What do you think they’re doing right and what are the biggest challenges in exporting a game that’s such an intrinsic part of one country’s national character?
Danny – Baseball in Asia is very healthy, but baseball in Thailand is basically non-existent. You are right about Johnny Damon, whose mother is Thai and who has done some appearances here. Thailand did field a team in the qualifiers for the 2017 WBC, but it didn’t come close to advancing. Around that time, I did some work looking to do a possible story on Thai baseball, but after a few inquiries I gave up because there just wasn’t much there.
I did cover the 2017 WBC first and second rounds at the Tokyo Dome in Japan, and that was a great experience, especially for the Japan games. I’ve also been to a game in Korea. I would highly recommend both experiences for any baseball fan. As for Thailand, come here for all the other reasons, but not for baseball!
I think MLB has done about as well as it can with trying to build a world base for the game, and I’m glad to see another London Series this summer. Having a sports bar in Thailand, I see similar issues for many sports that have looked to branch out internationally. Nearly every sport or league has tried to do it, with varying degrees of success. I don’t see baseball becoming a major sport in the UK or anywhere in Europe. Australians love all sports and are probably more likely to embrace it, but obviously they don’t have the market size to be as attractive a target.
Steve – Talking of London, we’ve chatted previously about Cricket and the famously disputed origins of baseball. The current England test cricket team seems to be going out of its way to make that game more exciting to watch at a time when the sport itself has been rethinking its actual formats to try to appeal to new audiences.
As there’s more competition for the way we spend our leisure time, has change to our pastimes just become part of life?
I know you’re a big soccer fan and while that game hasn’t fundamentally altered in the modern era – or any rule changes have been relatively marginal – the biggest and most controversial recent change has been technology-related, with the Video Assisted Referee, or VAR. There’s barely a week goes by without VAR causing the sort of debate among commentators and fans that used to be the result of a referee’s simple human error; but now decisions can be reviewed and – at least some – consequences for outcomes of games can be changed.
Do you think altering the traditional structure of sports and games is largely meddling, or is it a natural consequence of a response to a changing society?
Danny – I think sports always needs to respond to the society it exists in. Sport has changed everywhere, even when the rules don’t change significantly.
Speaking of soccer, the new stadiums have responded to people’s desires for comfort, food options and big video boards. Cricket has seen a big emphasis on the T20 game, which is much more accessible to masses of fans. And of course there is video replay now in all sports to some measure.
I’m a big fan of the VAR concept, but not always of the application. I think cricket and rugby have done a far better job with it than soccer and MLB, in part because they have emphasized transparency. It’s clear right from the start what the video referee/umpire is looking at, and you can hear them as they watch it back and explain what leads to their decision. I also think they’ve done a better job of sticking to what replay is good at, which is overturning clear and obvious errors. Soccer and baseball have often fallen into the easy trap of trying to get every close decision exactly right, which is impossible and tends to lead to the worst arguments.
Steve – In the same vein, we have to address baseball’s latest and potential rule changes – the shift, base sizes, ghost runners, even robot umpires.
In your book Unwritten, you talk about playing the game “the right way” and how players instinctively think about what’s expected of them. Will that inevitably change as more aspects of the game – and we should never forget that it is, after all, a game – become out of players’ control?
Danny – I applaud baseball’s efforts to get more action into the game, and the early spring training games I’ve watched suggest they may have some success.
I thought Raul Ibanez made a good point in an interview with Joe Posnanski that ran in Esquire. The game as played under these rules will look very familiar to anyone who watched baseball 15-20 years ago. They took an old game and superimposed the new pitch clock and found that almost no one violated it back then (even though at the time there was no clock).
The game is great and you’d love for there to never be huge, huge changes. We want it to look similar to the games we see on the old black and white newsreels.
But the best changes go so smoothly you forget the game had ever been played without them. Think about the back-pass rule in soccer. It was a huge change, but almost immediately it felt like the rule had always been there because it made so much sense and improved the game.
Steve – A lot of sportswriters love the pitch clock – many so-called purists don’t.
In a nice piece this week, Rick Reilly quoted Dodgers manager Dave Roberts as saying: “If we’d had a pitch clock my entire career, I might have learned how to play the violin by now.”
But in all seriousness, is there a danger that in supposedly chasing a new generation of fans, MLB is just moving too quickly?
I’d probably consider myself a traditionalist rather than a purist but I do agree that games were getting really long (and I guess everyone can argue about whether that’s a good or a bad thing). But then something happens like a game ending on a pitch clock violation and even advocates for shortening games must surely be thinking “well, that’s not what we had in mind”.
What difference do you think the clock will make to the way baseball is played, covered and – probably most importantly – watched?
Danny – They will make adjustments as they go along. I saw some managers and players mentioning that on long foul balls players had to run quite a ways to get back into position, for example. But I think the biggest thing about the pitch clock will be that before long you won’t even notice that it is being used. Players will quickly adapt their routines, and clock violations will almost never occur. I really don’t worry about the clock changing the game in any negative way, and I think it’s very unlikely that any clock violation will impact who wins a regular season game.
Steve – Across your career, you managed the transition from print to online to virtual formats. You and I both worked through what was probably the media industry’s most traumatic and uncertain quarter-century – the effects of which are still playing out.
As another sportswriter friend put it, “at the end of the day, we’re still telling stories”. But what do you think have been the most consequential structural shifts in how journalism works and how they have affected the relationship with audiences?
For example, technology has allowed the way sports are covered to fragment into more and more specialised silos. Are there perhaps too many outlets for commentary and opinion now; or is it just a case of supply and demand, where new entrants can fill spaces inevitably left by legacy media organizations?
Danny – It’s been a huge change, and as with any change some of it has been good and some bad. I agree fully with the “we’re still telling stories” statement. And one big positive of the changes has been that the best of those stories can now get shared around the world, whereas when I started they would likely be written at one newspaper in one market and never be seen anywhere else.
The relationship with the audience is an interesting point, and can also be both positive and negative. Through e-mail and social media, it is much, much easier for readers to respond. That brings on a lot of sniping, but it can also result in feedback that helps the writer improve stories or better target stories that are of interest to readers. And the quick availability of statistics, records and archives through the internet means a good reporter/writer can include facts and tidbits that weren’t accessible in the past.
Things are still shaking out as far as how many outlets there are and how well they serve the readers. I’m a big fan of The Athletic, and I really hope they succeed in what they have tried to do, which is to hire good writers and give them the freedom in space and time to tell good stories.
Steve – Finally, back to baseball, but still on our theme of continuity and change.
With the explosion in fantasy leagues and the growth of sports betting, the game has become even more statistically-oriented than ever (although I still can’t imagine kids debating relative exit velocity the same way their parents talked about a Ken Griffey vs a Barry Bonds home run).
What first excited you about the game as a kid? Who was your favorite player to watch then, and who is it now?
And one last question – what are some of your own favorite baseball books? Favorite baseball movie?
Danny – Statistics have always been a part of baseball, and kids of my generation pored over the morning box scores and the Sunday leaders listings. Looking back, I was probably a later adopter of some of the newer stats than I should have been. I would never want the game to be only about numbers, but baseball has always been a game that lent itself to numbers. “Look at the back of my baseball card,” players always said, pointing to their career numbers and the likelihood they wold eventually repeat them.
What attracted me to the game, though, was the day-to-day nature of it, watching a pennant race and living with it every day as the summer wore on. I turned 13 in 1974, when the Dodgers were battling the Reds and eventually winning the West by four games. Those were Garvey-Lopes-Russell-Cey Dodgers, but me and my friends loved Manny Mota, the pinch hitter deluxe who would often specialize in fouling off a bunch of pitches before getting the big hit.
The Reds were the big rivals, so we didn’t like Pete Rose but we also loved watching him play. Home runs were nowhere near as common then as they are now, so it was special to see the big hitters like Hank Aaron and Willie Stargell. And as with any kid growing up in LA at the time, Vin Scully meant as much to us as any player. He taught us the game, and taught us what it was to love the Dodgers.
I enjoy watching a lot of today’s players. I’ve been a Bryce Harper fan since I first saw him in spring training as a rookie with the Nationals. I love Ohtani and what he does. I like watching Aaron Judge. And there are players I have followed because I covered them, guys like Justin Verlander. If he’s pitching I’ll always try to turn the game on.
I’ve read so many baseball books over the years that it feels hard to single some out, but The Boys of Summer by Roger Kahn and Ball Four by Jim Bouton certainly stand out. As for movies, I’ve always been more partial to Bull Durham, perhaps because I lived in Durham when it was being filmed, and also to Eight Men Out.
You can follow Danny on Twitter here.
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