KANSAS CITY -- It was very clear during the the early December Winter Meetings in San Diego how new Royals manager Mike Matheny felt about first baseman Ryan O'Hearn: Matheny wants O'Hearn to grab the first-base job and hold on to it for good.
Of course, O’Hearn already kind of knew how his new skipper felt.
That’s because about a month ago, Matheny flew to Dallas and met O’Hearn and teammate Hunter Dozier for breakfast in nearby Denton, Texas. In fact, Matheny has spent much of the past couple of months flying across the country to meet players on his roster.
“He seems awesome,” O’Hearn said by phone. “He came out and met with me and Dozier and we had a great conversation. How cool was it for him coming out to meet us like that?
“He definitely has a presence about him. He commands respect. Everything he says definitely means something. I mean, when he talks, you listen. After about an hour with him, I was ready to pack up and go to Surprise, [Arizona].
“And to get a vote of confidence like that from a guy you haven’t played for is really something. My reaction was just excitement. It made we want to get better. I can’t wait to get to Spring Training. Matheny seems like one of those guys you want to run through a wall for.”
O’Hearn grabbed the attention of Royals fans back in 2018 when he was called up for the last two months of the season and posted a .950 OPS with 12 home runs and 30 RBIs.
But last year was a startling reminder for O’Hearn on how tough baseball can be. He got off to a rough start, was demoted and finished the year hitting just .195.
That made O’Hearn want to commit even more to his offseason strength and conditioning program. He has spent the past three months working out with Dozier on a regular basis.
“I lift about four or five days a week,” O’Hearn said. “I’ve really been into agility stuff as well this offseason. I’m doing a lot more running, trying to get more athletic.”
“I was about 230 [pounds] last year, but now I’m about 223,” O’Hearn said. “I feel more athletic. It’s not about being as big as possible. But cleaning up my diet has helped, I can already tell. I have a buddy who played soccer at [Texas] A&M and he is really into nutrition. So he has helped with meal preps. I’m losing body fat and gaining muscle.
“I start out with three or four eggs with toast in the morning. A lot of chicken with vegetables for lunch. And ground beef with sweet potatoes and broccoli for dinner. Just healthy stuff. And the thing is, once you start eating like that, you really don’t have an urge to eat bad stuff.”
The other part of O’Hearn’s offseason training concerns his mental approach. He admits that he often got too down on himself last season, something Matheny can relate to.
“I was like that as a player,” Matheny said. “It’s a game of failure, and you have to be able to forgive yourself for failure. I see a lot of myself in Ryan O’Hearn.”
O’Hearn recognizes that he needs to make that mental adjustment.
“I think I got to a point in September where I flushed a lot of the bad stuff out,” O’Hearn said. “But It was a learning experience. I don’t want to completely forget about last year. I learned a lot. But I believe in myself more than ever. I‘ve gone through adversity before. I know it was bad at the beginning. There were some writers who talked about us getting a [better] first baseman. You just flush that stuff out.
“I think, looking back, that what stood out is I just have to get better. Everyone wants to succeed and get better. I buried myself mentally and I wasn’t enjoying things. That was an issue. In the last two months, I decided I would try to have more fun. Baseball is supposed to be fun. You can dig a hole by beating yourself up. If you dig a hole, it’s not a fun year.
“I think you just have to keep your priorities straight. If the first game next year I go 0-for-4, you don’t go home and beat yourself up.”
Expect to see a new O’Hearn this spring, one in better physical and mental shape.
“And the one message Doze and I got from [Matheny] is that this isn’t about rebuilding anymore,” O’Hearn said. “The message we got from him is we want to win, and win now. It’s not just about development. We have the ability to win right now, and that’s going to be our approach from the first day.”