Ryan O’Hearn was furious.

And not for the first time. He was irate about the decision from the Kansas City Royals’ front office to leave the first base prospect off the 40-man roster, exposing him to the rest of the league during the 2017 Rule 5 draft. O’Hearn had been hopeful — maybe even expectant — that two straight seasons with 22 homers in the minors would push him closer to his major league dream.

But when he arrived at Chad Marr’s gym in Southlake, Texas, the news was fresh in his ears. And, for a player with a quick temper, the snub kept on ringing in his head — a declaration that O’Hearn wasn’t good enough, or not worthy of a spot. Those were, after all, the characterizations that O’Hearn feared most himself.

“Once I was OK with losing my baseball career, it freed me up.”

Ryan O'Hearn, Orioles first baseman/outfielder

He was still just 24, far off the time when his anger would dull to a more manageable level.

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Into the gym walked O’Hearn that early winter day in 2017.

Marr, ready for their daily training session, heard the news. He could see the negative energy coursing through O’Hearn. The gym was otherwise empty, so Marr locked the door and turned to O’Hearn.

“Listen,” the trainer said, “there’s a cure for that. You just come in here, and you work it out. You just keep continuing to do the work. Because eventually that will win the day.”

Then, O’Hearn and Marr completed one of their most intense training sessions ever. It was devoid of the usual hourslong talks about baseball, family and faith. In its place was the first of many life-altering lessons: The anger didn’t have to devour him, because he could use it as fuel.

Suddenly, O’Hearn burned for a purpose; he understood that instead of letting his anger escape in the form of a broken bat or punched wall — he’d lost a chunk of skin on his knuckles from one of those outbursts — he could work it out here, in the gym.

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Channeling all of that into his offseason workout regimen was part of a maturation process as a player that hinged on the fact that O’Hearn accepted his baseball career could be rapidly reaching its end.

At one point, such a thought might’ve crippled him. But, late in the 2022 season, when his playing time with the Royals reached an all-time low, O’Hearn exhaled. He lightened his grip. He smiled, enjoying this for what it was — a game, not a career.

And everything changed.

“I was tired of being stressed out about it,” O’Hearn said. “I was tired of holding it so tight that I couldn’t necessarily be myself.”

For many years, O’Hearn’s unceasing perfectionism and single-minded desire for success were as much a part of him as anything else. But it didn’t have to be that way. And, in a sense, letting go has led him back to baseball in a more complete way than ever before — an unlikely cog in a Baltimore Orioles lineup that never banked on O’Hearn holding such a large role.

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“Once I was OK with losing my baseball career,” O’Hearn said, “it freed me up.”

O'Hearn started immediately as a freshman at Sam Houston State, where he learned how to play first base. (Brian Blalock)

***

O’Hearn found another bruise on his chest. It was only a couple of centimeters wide, an imprint of one of David Pierce’s fingers, a reminder of all he had to do.

Pierce had a habit of poking O’Hearn in the chest to drive home a point, and during O’Hearn’s freshman year at Sam Houston State the coach had many points to drive home.

He’d poke O’Hearn during practice, when his first base fundamentals — still in their infancy — were shaky. He’d poke O’Hearn during breakfast, when they sat at a table discussing O’Hearn’s role in Pierce’s new program. He’d poke O’Hearn during a game, when a miscue in the field proved costly.

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“David Pierce pretty much told me, ‘Whether you like it or not, you’re going to be the first baseman, so you better figure it out,’” O’Hearn recalled.

He was a corner outfielder and pitcher at Wakeland High School in Frisco, Texas, but Sam Houston State had outfield depth. What the Bearkats didn’t have was O’Hearn’s bat, and they could get it in the lineup if he played first, a deceptively difficult position with which O’Hearn was thoroughly unfamiliar.

“He was on me every inning. Every inning if something happened, a mistake or whatever — and I made a lot of them,” O’Hearn said. “But he stuck with me.”

O’Hearn’s name rose in the realm of Texas high school baseball because of the power he displayed throughout his senior year. He was a late bloomer, finally adding to his 6-foot-2, 150-pound frame as a senior, and with each training session balls began to leave the yard.

A bout of mononucleosis between his junior and senior years of high school meant most colleges missed seeing O’Hearn play during those pivotal summer tournaments for recruiting, and Sam Houston State was O’Hearn’s lone NCAA Division I offer. He took it despite a change of coaching staff the year he entered, and his bat translated almost immediately to the next level.

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Pierce soon learned O’Hearn’s confidence with the bat in his hands when he called for the freshman to lay down a sacrifice bunt to move two runners over. When O’Hearn reached the dugout, the job well done, he told his coach he’d rather always hit with two strikes than lay down an out.

Pierce saw the other side to O’Hearn, too, when an error in the field carried over to the batter’s box in the form of a hack-happy at-bat. Pierce kept O’Hearn in the lineup throughout his development, though, giving him a leash that forced him to learn from failure.

“He was kind of a hothead, but in a good way, because he cared,” said Pierce, who’s now the head coach at Texas. “He just had to hone his emotions. He just had to control his emotions. And I think that’s hard for players that have that kind of mindset that, you know, he expects so much of himself.”

O’Hearn was a middle-of-the-order bat from the day he arrived at Sam Houston State to when the Royals selected him in the eighth round of the 2014 draft. His glove was never the reason for his everyday playing time as a freshman over a senior.

But O’Hearn never backed down from the challenge of learning a new position and, as he looks back now, he credits Pierce for prodding him repeatedly in the chest. Each poke pushed O’Hearn closer to the position he’d one day hold in the majors, and it introduced O’Hearn to a type of adversity on the field that he wouldn’t experience again until later in his rise up the minor league ranks.

In O’Hearn’s first professional at-bat, playing for Kansas City’s rookie ball affiliate Idaho Falls, he homered. He finished with the Pioneer League’s MVP award, having posted a 1.034 on-base-plus-slugging percentage.

Those were some of O’Hearn’s best days. On his climb toward baseball’s heights, though, his descent into valleys would prove equally as steep.

Baltimore Orioles outfielder Ryan O'Hearn (32) prepares to take his at bat during a baseball game against the Chicago White Sox at Camden Yards on Monday, August 28.
His college coach sees a big difference in O'Hearn in an Orioles uniform after five years in Kansas City. (Ulysses Muñoz/The Baltimore Banner)

***

O’Hearn’s eyes would glaze over. He wasn’t sleeping. He would instead stare at the team-issued iPad until 3 or 4 in the morning, dissecting every plate appearance of his rookie season with the Royals, hoping to find some commonality that would lead to more success.

In 2018, O’Hearn arrived.

He arrived and immediately showed all the promise his bat displayed throughout his minor league career. In his first 44 games, he clobbered 12 home runs with a .950 OPS.

But, less than a year later, O’Hearn watched his iPad all night, because he couldn’t figure out what had changed.

“Probably the darkest time of my career,” O’Hearn said.

He had gone to compete in the Dominican Winter League and struggled in his limited time abroad, then returned and struggled more for the Royals. In 105 games, O’Hearn’s OPS was 300 percentage points lower than the previous season.

“I put so much pressure on myself mentally,” O’Hearn said. “And then you get in the box that night and your body doesn’t feel great. You’re tired; you stayed up all night. It’s like, ‘Here’s your opportunity, here’s your opportunity. Don’t screw it up. Prove you’re not a fluke. Prove 150 good at-bats weren’t a flash in the pan.’”

The dialogue in his own mind was endless — it raised the stakes of each plate appearance and, in a game defined by failure, the magnitude of each out compounded.

O’Hearn hung around Kansas City, even though there were times Pierce, watching on television, thought his days in the majors might be numbered based on the quality of O’Hearn’s at-bats. In his last three seasons with the Royals, O’Hearn’s OPS never rose above .636.

And, as O’Hearn struggled at the plate, relegated mainly to a pinch-hitting role, his appearances became fewer and farther between.

“My playing time was so inconsistent. It was like, they wanted me to be around, but they didn’t want to use me, which was an absolute — for lack of a better word — mind fuck for a player,” O’Hearn said. “I just found myself angry all the time. I was mad when I wasn’t playing. I was mad when I was playing, because shadows or weather or pitcher or — I just found something to be bitter about all the time, and I didn’t like who I was becoming.”

From July to October 2022, O’Hearn started just 17 games. He’d go a week or more without seeing the field.

“I think that’s when the switch happened,” O’Hearn said. He realized that “maybe baseball isn’t my calling in life, and that’s OK. Just being able to let go.”

He focused on being the best teammate he could be, celebrating other players’ highs even if O’Hearn himself wasn’t contributing on the field. He soaked in life as a major league player, realizing that, down the road, he might be angry at himself for wasting these precious moments at the pinnacle of the sport. He felt joy true joy.

As he did so, O’Hearn noticed his results on the field improved. In his final 30 games, he hit .292.

All the while, he listened to the counsel of Mike Sweeney, a former major league first baseman who now serves as a special assistant to baseball operations in Kansas City.

“He helped me understand that your career is not going to do this,” O’Hearn said, mimicking a steep incline with his hand. “It’s all adjusting. It’s all about overcoming. And he gave me all these examples of guys that thought they had it figured out, and how this game could just kick you square in the balls sometimes.”

From firsthand experience, O’Hearn could sure relate.

***

On a back field in Sarasota, Florida, O’Hearn stepped into the batter’s box to face co-hitting coach Matt Borgschulte. It was one of his first days with the Orioles at the onset of spring training, having joined Baltimore after an offseason vaulted him to a new organization for the first time in his professional career.

Those first few days were overwhelming. He tried to learn new names and faces rapidly, wanted to leave a good first impression for each of his new coaches and teammates, and had to navigate a new spring destination in Florida rather than Arizona.

This was the easy part, though: swinging the bat.

So in that early-February sun, O’Hearn hacked and hacked and watched as about 20 homers carried over the fence in a single session.

“I was like, ‘Oh my God, I haven’t seen the ball fly like that off my bat in a long time,” O’Hearn said.

Even being there was a surprise to O’Hearn. He and the Royals agreed on a one-year, $1.4 million contract to avoid arbitration, but midway through the winter Kansas City designated him for assignment — removing O’Hearn from the team’s major league squad. Even then, O’Hearn expected to stay with the Royals and battle for a roster spot during spring training.

But then the Royals sent O’Hearn to the Orioles in a January trade, providing the then-29-year-old with an entirely new environment. That was daunting. But O’Hearn quickly realized how special the opportunity was in front of him to reestablish himself where he was a relative unknown.

“The best thing that happened to Ryan was being traded to Baltimore,” Pierce said. “Just gave him a new, fresh look on playing with a good team and a new environment.”

No one in Baltimore knew how hard he could be on himself. They didn’t know about the sleepless nights or the frustration that bubbled internally. They’d only know the new O’Hearn, the one who accepted the possibility of failure and stopped trying to outrun the inevitable ending to his baseball career — whenever that may come.

The carryover effect has been pronounced.

O’Hearn has made a case as one of Baltimore’s most important players during its American League East-leading campaign, with his .297 batting average and .828 OPS. He’s playing nearly every day in a race to the postseason and, after Monday’s game, in which Joan Jett was in attendance, he noted how cool it is that a rock star even knew his name.

“I kept that same spirit. I’m going to be a good teammate, I’m going to play as hard as I can, and I have nothing to lose,” O’Hearn said. “Whatever happens, it’s part of the plan. And I’m OK with it. If I’m not in baseball next year, I’m OK with it.”

Since O’Hearn loosened his grip on the sport to which he’s dedicated his life, baseball has only held on tighter.

andy.kostka@thebaltimorebanner.com

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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