To anyone who would call Bob Abels a baseball fan, Brian Fennessy says au contraire.
“He’s not a fan,” Abels’s long-time friend says simply. “He’s a fanatic.”
Fennessy has a point.
Abels has traveled to Nicaragua, Panama, the Dominican Republic, Taiwan, The Netherlands, and Korea to see games. He’s attended World Cups, World Baseball Classics, the Asian Series, and tournaments in The Netherlands. And Japan? Abels has been on four JapanBall tours and is one of the earliest inductees into the JapanBall Hall of Fame.
He created an international baseball website, My World of Baseball, in 2011 to blog and post information about international baseball. He blogs about major leagues and minor leagues, well-known players and virtual unknowns, baseball hotspots and places not. Abels is no causal writer – he posts something almost daily.
And when he catches a ballgame at countries around the country and the world, Abels doesn’t miss a pitch – he is the type that keeps score at most games he attends.
“He opened his closet once and showed me this huge stack of books,” Fennessy said. “I asked him what they were, and he said they were all his scorebooks. It was amazing.”
And with so many games and so many trips, there are stories aplenty.
Abels’s story began as a member of a Navy family that lived “all over the place” before his father retired in San Diego when Abels was 17. At one point, Abels wanted to be a professional baseball player until the curveball convinced him that career success lay elsewhere. He switched to volleyball and became good enough to compete in tournaments around the world and even in some pro tournaments – “I’m not sure you could say I was a pro since I never won any money,” he said wryly.
He later moved to Los Angeles and began a career with the federal government helping implement and enforce trade laws, eventually decamping to Washington, DC. The job took him to many countries, and he’d always try to see baseball when time permitted. After retirement ten years ago, he started blogging, coaching volleyball, and traveling more for baseball.
But, there’s more to his story than that.
With his government career, for example. He started working in Customs and Border Protection in his late twenties after acknowledging that he’d reached his beach volleyball ceiling – that he wasn’t going to reach the level of a Karch Kiraly or Sinjin Smith.
“I figured I need to do something besides be a beach player,” Abels said. “The job with customs – focusing on imports, not immigration – came up, so I went from being a beach bum to that.”
He and Fennessy had similar jobs and eventually worked in buildings across the street from each other in Washington. They met during a training course in 1984 when Fennessy was working in Detroit. The Detroit Tigers and San Diego Padres met in the World Series that year, “so there was a lot of trash-talking,” Fennessy said with a laugh, “but we became good friends.”
Fennessy recalled an evening during a business trip to the Philippines when they went out with a group from the Philippine Garment and Textile Export Board. Several women asked Abels to dance, but he turned them down, thinking it would be impolite to say yes to some and no to others. Finally, the group’s executive director asked him to dance, and he felt like he couldn’t turn her down.
The woman turned out to be Gloria Macapagal Arroyo, who served as the 14th president of the Philippines from 2001 until 2010.
Abels will never forget the time he returned from a trip to Hong Kong the day before 9/11. He was scheduled to attend a seminar the next day at the World Trade Center but begged off because he was tired from his trip. His assistant and several other associates were there, though, and all had harrowing stories about their escape from the building.
Another time, he was in a village in the West African country of Mali. Out for a walk, he stepped in a wet spot where gutters from the bathrooms had leaked. Locals were concerned enough that they took his shoes and washed them. Later, a more imminent threat than bathroom water-logged shoes emerged. The State Department informed him that there were rumors of a coup taking place the next day and that the team should leave immediately, before the government shut down the airports. They left as soon as possible, but no coup materialized.
During one trip to Korea, he went to a game between the Doosan Bears and LG Twins, who share the same stadium in Seoul. Doosan officials were hosting Abels and his colleagues and giving them souvenirs. Some LG Twins people saw that, came over, and started giving them souvenirs, too.
“I guess it was kind of like a challenge for them,” Abels said, “but it got a little uncomfortable balancing the two and being showered with so many gifts when there was a limit on what we could accept [due to our governmental positions].”
Despite having a “real” job, he continued playing volleyball, competing in events such as the Police Games and the World Police and Fire Games. He often paired with his brother, a California highway patrolman, in places like Australia, Sweden, and Canada. He competed against Olympic medalists from other countries who had gone on to careers in law enforcement, and he won gold and silver medals himself.
He humbly compares his volleyball career to a minor league baseball player at spring training – “I was that AA player who got to play against the really good ones.”
Abels kept playing until his mid-40s and then – “when my legs gave out” – focused on softball, which he plays to this day in his home of Falls Church, Va., a suburb of Washington, DC.
“I didn’t hit my first over-the-fence home run until I was 58. This year, I hit one over the 300-foot fence. I guess I’m getting stronger as I get older,” he said with a laugh.
Even though he no longer plays competitively, volleyball is still a big part of Abels’s life. He coaches at Bishop O’Connell High School in Arlington, VA, and for the Vienna Elite Volleyball Club, where he led his teams to the Junior Nationals in 2020.
He enjoys coaching, though the season overlaps with spring training and “puts a damper” on his baseball-themed travel.
Ah, the baseball travel adds much more detail to his story.
He first went on a JapanBall tour in 2003 and followed that with trips in 2005, 2008, and 2013. That first trip opened his eyes to the international game and sparked his interest in doing more baseball-themed traveling.
JapanBall founder Bob Bavasi said, “Bob was one of the earlier JapanBall travelers and helped get it off the ground. He came to me several times with ideas when I wasn’t sure if the concept was going to work or not. He was one of the first to give me ideas about how we could take it further by going to other countries. At the time, I wanted to make sure we got the Japan trips right before expanding, but I always appreciated his ideas. And he was always very enthusiastic about helping on the tours.”
Abels’s baseball travels really got going after he retired in 2011 – right after, in fact.
“I retired on September 30 and got on a plane to Panama the next day to watch the Baseball World Cup,” he said. “The Netherlands upset Cuba in the finals, which was pretty cool.”
The following month, he went to Taiwan to see the Asia Series, which pitted the winners of the leagues in Australia, Japan, South Korea, and Taiwan against each other. “I was wearing a Hanshin Tigers shirt, and all the Japanese wanted to take a picture of me.”
Continuing the ultimate baseball-themed retirement celebration, he traveled to the Dominican Republic for the Caribbean Series (a tournament between the winners of the winter leagues in Cuba, the D.R., Mexico, Puerto Rico, and Venezuela) not long after the Taiwan trip.
He vividly remembers standing in line for tickets there and watching as others cut in line ahead of him. It turned out that people were paying others to save spots for them, and he ended up doing the same thing.
“I even met a guy who claimed his name was Gehrig Gehrig and that he was Lou Gehrig’s grandson,” he said with a roll of his eyes.
After the Caribbean Series was a spring training trip, after which he decided to slow down for a while “so I could afford to travel on a retired person’s income.”
Abels slowed down a bit, perhaps, but hardly stopped. The idea for the website struck him while sitting in a restaurant before a game at the Tokyo Dome.
“I suddenly had this epiphany about doing a website on international baseball,” he said. “At that time, there didn’t seem to be a lot of resources that provided current news on baseball internationally. There is so much history and so many events internationally that it’s difficult for one person to keep up with it all, but I write as much as I can and then provide readers with as many links as possible to other sites.
“I try to write at least once a day, though sometimes the volleyball coaching responsibilities get in the way. If I don’t write regularly, then I might not follow things as closely as I should.”
Fennessy added, “Writing is therapeutic for Bob, I think. He’s not so interested in the world following his every word.”
During his 2013 JapanBall tour, Abels blogged about witnessing a pitching duel between then-19-year-old Shohei Ohtani, pitching for the Nippon Ham Fighters, and Mashiro Tanaka, the year he posted a 24-0 record with the Rakuten Golden Eagles. Though trailing 2-0 at one point, Tanaka and Rakuten eventually won 3-2. Ohtani went five innings.
“I remember writing something about him being the next Babe Ruth and that people should keep an eye on him,” Abels said wryly. “I wonder how many people remember that?”
A few nights later, he wrote about seeing Wladimir Balentien of the Yakult Swallows homer for the 54th time, leaving him one shy of the season record jointly held at the time by Sadaharu Oh and Randy Bass. Balentien went on to hit 60.
“I still have my scorecards for both of those games,” he said. “It’s pretty cool.”
But the baseball memories aren’t just confined to extraordinary moments on the field.
Another time in the Dominican Republic, he went to a game with the intention of sitting in the bleachers, but some locals advised him to get something in a safer location. It was good advice because shortly after Abels took his seat, he noticed fans in the bleachers throwing water bottles at each other.
In Panama, he discovered that fans have a ritual of throwing their cups of beer into the air after the final out of a home team’s victory, soaking everyone nearby. After one game in Panama, he took a bus back to his hotel, got off, and saw a woman angrily yelling and removing her wet clothes near the hotel entrance.
He was at a game in The Netherlands during which a well-known opera personality sang between innings…and kept singing until the end of the song, even though the game had resumed. “And the people were singing along with him!” Abels recalled.
While baseball and volleyball form significant parts of Abels’s life, he is more multi-dimensional than that.
“Bob is a really interesting and complex guy,” Fennessy said. “He’s very knowledgeable about foreign films and has an eclectic taste in music. He told me that the good guys don’t always win in foreign movies – sometimes, the bad guys win, smile, and just walk away.
“I remember, too, a film festival put on by the Hong Kong government – Bob knew more about the actors than some of the [Hong Kong] employees did.” This sort of thing repeats itself over and over if you’re a friend of Abels: he is constantly sharing knowledge with those around him of obscure bands (ever heard of Concrete Blonde?) and underappreciated films (he recommends Searching for Sugar Man, a documentary about a singer in Detroit whose music was smuggled into South Africa during the Apartheid era and, unbeknownst to the singer, made him very popular there).
Of course, his knowledge of the arts is matched by his knowledge of baseball.
“He’s one of the few people – outside of Japan, at least – who knows that the top of the ‘T’ on the Hanshin Tigers cap represents the bridge in Hanshin.
“No, there’s not a single person I know that’s like Bob.”