Amy Ross’s first JapanBall tour proved to be much more than an ordinary vacation.
“It was life-changing for me,” she says. “I got into a like-minded community and had a whole new world in front of me.”
It was a world that merged her long-time passions for baseball and Japan.
Baseball had come first – almost from day one. Born and raised on the New Jersey shore, she and her two brothers – one a New York Mets fan and the other a fan of the cross-town Yankees – frequently attended games with their father when they were young. As a high-schooler, she coached a grade school intramural softball team and served as manager and scorekeeper for her high school softball team. She later had a son who became a Yankees fan, so she softened on the whole rivalry thing and “became more open to just loving baseball.”
A Lifelong Passion Blooms
Ross’s interest in Japan began as a 10-year-old when her uncle went to Tokyo on a business trip and brought back a Japanese doll for her.
“Something just clicked then,” she says. “Now, my relationship with Japan goes back almost 50 years.”
Ross later did a project about Japan for a high school class, but her serious interest began at Rutgers University, where she started as a French/Spanish major and later earned a degree in Oriental Studies with a minor in economics.
“I eventually got a job at the international center where we dealt with all the foreign students,” she said. “I was in charge of the International Student Organization, and we had students from all over the world. I fostered many friendships with students from abroad, but I seemed to gravitate toward the Japanese. To be honest, I should have worked for the United Nations. I was just a girl from the Jersey shore with all these dreams.
“Japan is like my home . . . my safe haven.”Amy Ross
“But in my junior year, on a whim, I answered a flyer about studying in Japan, even though I didn’t speak Japanese at the time. I ended up going to Nagoya, and I knew then that my life would somehow be geared toward Japanese business.”
She spent her junior year abroad at Nanzan University in Nagoya. Fully immersed in the Japanese culture for the first time, Ross’s study abroad experience evolved a childhood fondness for Japan into full on enamorment. Upon returning to the U.S., she entered the Rutgers-Princeton Advanced Japanese program for language study, through which she socialized and developed friendships with many of the students.
All this led to a career in the securities industry with a focus on Japan and the Pacific Rim.
Ross started at Nomura Securities as a bilingual sales assistant and later had roles at other firms in areas such as research, sales, public relations, account management, and marketing. Along the way, she managed major Japanese accounts, established one company’s Tokyo satellite office, provided daily market commentary on Japanese equities, marketed Japanese research to European financial institutions, advised clients on Japanese social and business customs, and much more.
In addition to many business trips to Japan, she also had a four-month work assignment in the country.
After a time, she left the industry to spend more time with her children, Spencer and Natalie (Spencer – now 31, a certified public accountant, and still a Yankees fan – accompanied her on the 2016 JapanBall tour; Natalie – 27 and a human resources recruiter – is not a baseball fan, “but she supports my love for the sport and involvement with JapanBall”).
That doesn’t mean that she put Japan behind her though. Far from it. After touring Japan with Spencer and Natalie in 2005, Ross decided to take a refresher course in Japanese at a nearby community college. That turned into an 11-year stint teaching elementary and intermediate Japanese courses.
“They asked me to be their tutor, and I loved it,” Ross said. “It’s amazing how wonderful all those kids have turned out.”
By the mid-2010s, though, life was getting hectic. There was a divorce. Then her mother contracted cancer, and Ross became her caregiver. Amid it all, she looked up Japanese baseball online one day, and JapanBall came up.
“During my college year in Japan, I had thoroughly enjoyed going with classmates to see the Chunichi Dragons play at their home stadium. Once, I even happened to be on the Shinkansen from Nagoya to Tokyo with members of the Dragons team, and I’ve been a fan ever since.
“That was pivotal for me,” she said. “I had wanted to get back to Japanese baseball, so I began searching for Japanese baseball travel sites and found JapanBall. I talked with [JapanBall founder] Bob [Bavasi], went on my first trip in 2014 and have been coming back ever since.
“I’ve been attracted to Japan because of a love for the culture, the people. Japan is like my home…my safe haven.”
An Integral Member of the JapanBall Family
Ross has been on eight consecutive JapanBall tours since her first in 2014, becoming a Hall-of-Famer in 2016 after her third journey. Her resume includes being in attendance at the Tokyo Dome in 2019 when Ichiro Suzuki played his final game, and, in October 2021, the most recent tour – JapanBall’s first-ever trip to the Dominican Republic.
But Ross hasn’t simply gone on the trips. Much more, in fact. Now a certified Japan Travel Specialist by the Japan National Tourism Organization, she’s served as an unofficial tour guide, jack-of-all-trades, and all-around problem-solver – a Hall-of-Famer in more ways than one.
“The idea behind the tours is to help people understand more about Japan and its culture – not only through baseball but other aspects as well. Through things such as sumo wrestling matches, museums, shrines, castles, gardens, famous landmarks, and dining and shopping experiences.
“So I try to help out as much as possible,” she said. “I’ll help with transportation, translating, getting groceries, showing people where the bathrooms are, mailing things back home . . . anything. I like to take care of people. Bob [Bavasi] even asked me to help with local day tours.”
Ross particularly remembers the time when she helped lead JapanBall’s 2018 “Post Tour,” which included a trip to the northern island of Hokkaido to see the Nippon-Ham Fighters play a home game at the Sapporo Dome. An earthquake had struck, which disrupted train infrastructure and necessitated changes in the tour schedule and logistics.
It is rare in Japan that things don’t go exactly as planned, so Ross had to navigate things in an unsettling environment. Her fellow travelers were in good hands though: she, along with the help from other tour guests, was able to help everyone get back to Tokyo on time either via airplane or boat.
Ross recalls another time when Mother Nature struck – a typhoon hit Tokyo and its surroundings during the 2016 tour.
“It was very stormy, and the rain was really coming down, so there weren’t enough taxis to take everyone to dinner, but we were able to get everyone there. Bob didn’t know the extent to which I spoke Japanese, but it really came in handy then.”
Bavasi says, “Amy is really interested in the Japanese language and has really worked hard at learning it. I’d always search out Amy and see if she could help get things done, take people around or whatever was needed. She was so reliable and very positive – so pleasant to have on the trips.”
A New Life in Florida… But Still With a Focus on Japan and Baseball
Following her mother’s passing, Ross moved to West Palm Beach, Florida, in 2018 – “I’d been a part-timer before that” – and immersed herself into her new environment.
“I had to create a new life for myself,” she said.
Part of that was volunteering at The Ballpark of the Palm Beaches, the spring-training home of the Houston Astros and Washington Nationals, which is only 10 minutes from where she lives.
“I wanted to work at the stadium in whatever capacity I could. I couldn’t find anyone who could go to games with me, so I started by volunteering to work the grills and later served in the dining room for media and guests.”
In addition, her connections with Japan have created opportunities to help. Her experiences in the country and her ability to read and write Japanese enable her to assist people in navigating language and cultural barriers and make her a natural go-to person for all things Japanese.
“Recently, someone asked if I could help translate something for a Japanese client, and I was happy to do it,” Ross said. “I also sometimes volunteer to help on tours for Japanese who are visiting Florida, and vice versa. I’ve always felt that my niche was communication and finding ways to help people.”
For work, she made a significant career shift by becoming a real estate agent, while also volunteering at multiple organizations.
“I joined a boutique firm and have been working non-stop because the market has been so crazy here,” she said. “I’m exhausted at the end of most days and haven’t focused on baseball or Japan as much as I’d like.”
That’s not to say, though, that she’s completely ignored either. She is eager to start traveling to Japan again when the country re-opens to international tourists. In fact, had it not been for Covid-19, she would have been a volunteer at the Tokyo Olympics, which were originally scheduled for 2020 and finally took place in 2021.
Prior to the pandemic, Ross traveled to Japan to train to work at the Olympics and the Paralympics. She would have been on the event management team for badminton and handball at the Olympics and an event manager for the Paralympics. But Covid-19 restrictions meant that foreign fans and workers were barred from entering the country.
“It’s hard to become a volunteer when you’re from abroad,” Ross said, “so I took the initiative to apply directly to the organizing committee. I had to complete a very long questionnaire and then go through the training. It was magnificent – so exciting to be part of such a huge international group volunteering for what was supposed to be such an amazing event.
“But Covid stopped everything, and I feel like my momentum has stopped for the moment.”
But only for the moment.