ATLANTA — Sometimes Ryan O’Hearn took his frustration out on his bat by breaking it over his knee. Other times, he chucked his helmet into the bat rack, or yanked his batting gloves from his hands on his walk to the dugout — and then promptly ripped them in half.

He was a 21-year-old playing for the Wilmington Blue Rocks of the Carolina League in 2015, working his way up from the High-A affiliate of the Kansas City Royals organization. He wanted to make it, to prove himself, to back up all the hard work he’d put in to become an eighth-round draft pick the year before. He was accustomed to success: O’Hearn won the league’s MVP award in rookie ball by hitting .361; he reached High-A after half a season with the Low-A Lexington Legends, with 19 homers in 81 games.

So when success evaded O’Hearn, it was the bat, the gloves, the helmet that felt it more than anything.

And then his hand did. When O’Hearn slammed his helmet one day into the bat rack, it ricocheted back and took a chunk of skin from his knuckle. The pain — now physical as well as mental — was a wake-up call of sorts.

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At some point in anyone’s career, even for the best baseball players in the world, difficulties arise. The question becomes: How do they navigate those struggles once the inevitability of failure in a sport defined by it arrives?

“You can choose to get mad and throw stuff because it feels good in the moment,” O’Hearn said, “or you can realize, ‘Hey, that’s not going to help me.’”

Failure at the major league level can take different forms, from an agonizing slump to an isolated incident that feels larger because of the high stakes.

It can keep players up at night. It can lead them to doubt what they’ve done in the batter’s box for so much of their lives. It can rattle their resolve and fray their nerves and lead to a helmet slam that costs the skin on their knuckles.

O’Hearn, who was optioned to Triple-A Norfolk on Friday, is far from alone. Every baseball player deals with failure. But they’re in the Orioles clubhouse and not out of baseball because they’ve come to accept it — or at least temper their emotions in order to regroup for another plate appearance.

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Baltimore Orioles relief pitcher Keegan Akin (45) throws a warmup pitch during a timeout in the sixth inning of a baseball game at Camden Yards on Monday, April 24. The Orioles beat the Red Sox, 5-4, in the first game of the series. (Ulysses Muñoz/The Baltimore Banner)

“This game is made of failure,” left-hander Keegan Akin said. “It’s just who can fail less.”

Akin knows. He started 17 games in 2021, his first full season as a major leaguer, and got his “ass kicked every night,” he said, and finished with a 6.63 ERA. Throughout his time in the minor leagues, Akin felt as though he relatively cruised.

But the major leagues are different, and Akin only had to look around a young clubhouse to realize it. There was Ryan Mountcastle, the first baseman, who was hitting .167 through his first 20 games in 2021. Dean Kremer, a fellow pitcher, had his ERA explode to 7.55 that year. Outfielder Anthony Santander struck out more times than he recorded a hit.

Akin wasn’t alone.

“I could’ve crawled into a hole and never came back to the big leagues, really, because this game will bury you at some point if you let it,” Akin said. “I just remember telling myself, you’ve got to stay positive and learn from your mistakes, that’s the only way you’re going to get better.”

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There’s a fine line, though, between learning and obsessing.

For each of right-hander Kyle Gibson’s college games at Missouri, his parents traveled the country to watch. It was a waste of their time and energy, Gibson realized, when he’d allow a poor start for the Tigers impact his mood with his parents. He learned how to separate the results on the field from his personal life.

When O’Hearn reached the major leagues with the Royals, he became all-consumed with studying video. He’d lay in bed on his iPad until 4 a.m., watching and rewatching his at-bats, wondering how he could preserve his place in the majors. He wasn’t sleeping. He was anxious. And it bled into his performances on the field and relationships off it.

“I had to step back and look at it and say, ‘OK, this isn’t good for anybody,’” O’Hearn said. “You have to be OK with it ending. If that’s not in the cards for you, it’s OK. So, maybe it’s like holding a wet bar of soap, right? You can’t squeeze it too tight.”

Baltimore Orioles catcher Adley Rutschman (35) and first baseman Ryan Mountcastle (6) collide as Mountcastle catches a pop fly in a baseball game against the Detroit Tigers at Camden Yards on Friday, April 21. The Orioles beat the Tigers, 2-1, on their way to sweeping the series. (Ulysses Muñoz/The Baltimore Banner)

Mountcastle remembers a similar experience upon his arrival to the Delmarva Shorebirds. In his first month, he had twice as many strikeouts as hits, and after a game one night, he stepped into the batting cage and took hack after hack off the tee.

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“I was like, ‘What am I doing here? I’m in Delmarva, Maryland, this is brutal,’” Mountcastle said.

Then a 19-year-old, he wanted to swing his way out of the slump, to get back to the lofty batting averages he came to expect while playing high school ball in Florida. That’s when Shorebirds manager Ryan Minor walked into the cage and sat down.

“He was like, ‘Dude, this isn’t going to help at all,’” Mountcastle recalled. “I’m just trying to figure it out, stressing out like, ‘I suck, blah, blah, blah.’ He said, ‘Dude, just relax. Been there, too, a million times. You get through it.’”

It wasn’t a novel speech or something Mountcastle hadn’t heard from peers before. But coming from a former major league player at the nadir of Mountcastle’s 2016 season, something clicked.

He put the bat down, went to bed, thought about anything expect baseball and then — before too long — the slump was behind him.

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Right-hander Tyler Wells learned it even earlier, when the grief from the death of his mother enveloped him. His grandmother died when he was 16, sending another shockwave through him. Life, he learned, wouldn’t always go the way he hoped. Baseball, and its accompanying failures, felt small compared to what he’d already been through.

But failure emerges again and again, and overcoming it is never permanent.

BALTIMORE, MD - APRIL 22: Kyle Gibson #48 of the Baltimore Orioles pitches against the Detroit Tigers during the first inning at Oriole Park at Camden Yards on April 22, 2023 in Baltimore, Maryland. (Photo by Scott Taetsch/Getty Images) (Scott Taetsch/Getty Images)

By 2017, Gibson had established himself in the major leagues with the Minnesota Twins. He was 29 and part of a rotation with true postseason aspirations for the first time since his 2013 debut.

And it was all too much.

Gibson allowed 25 runs in his first 26 1/3 innings and was sent down to Triple-A.

“I was looking around thinking everybody thought I was the problem here, and I needed to be sent down, so I was kind of honestly hoping that I’d be sent down at some point because I just wasn’t dealing with the stress of it very well,” Gibson said. “And then the more I grew up, the more I realized, if you go 0-for-4 or 4-for-4, or two innings or eight innings, nobody’s looking at you as the reason we lost the game or didn’t play well. Because everybody in here has been through failure.”

Gibson started two games with the Rochester Red Wings, then returned to the Twins. He realized getting sent down wasn’t the end of the world — and here he is, now 35, still pitching in the major leagues because he understands failure.

He’s learned to accept it but not be ruled by it. He’s learned to move past it, to learn from it — to control it, even, in the extent that he doesn’t let it control him.

In that way, Gibson is like most in the Orioles clubhouse. To remain there, or remain in professional baseball at all, failure is as big a part of baseball as balls and strikes.

“I think some of how you identify yourself is important to avoid allowing failure to be your identity, and to ride with the failure or ride with the success,” Gibson said. “If you put your feelings and put your mentality in those two things, then you’re always going to be up and down and this game’s going to crush you.”

Andy Kostka is an Orioles beat writer for The Baltimore Banner. He previously covered the Orioles for The Baltimore Sun. Kostka graduated from the University of Maryland and grew up in Rockville.

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