HOUSTON -- Rangers first baseman Ronald Guzman spent all of 2017 at Triple-A Round Rock and had zero interest in going back, not after being the organization’s Minor League Player of the Year.
He had ambitions of making the Opening Day roster last spring. But Spring Training was barely halfway over when Guzman -- 3-for-24 at the plate -- was told otherwise in a meeting with manager Jeff Banister.
“We want you to go to Triple-A, be a team leader and keep doing what you can do,” Banister told him.
Guzman was disappointed, but he knew one thing was certain: He had been through much worse than that and come out as a better person.
“That was nothing compared to what I have been through,” Guzman said.
The worst happened early in the morning of Nov. 21, 2014, when Guzman was driving in his hometown of La Vega in the Dominican Republic. According to police reports, a 27-year-old motorcyclist Eleazar Garcia ran a stop light and crashed into Guzman’s Ford Explorer.
Garcia was killed instantly.
“Imagine yourself just driving in the neighborhood and somebody misses a stop sign and hits you and dies right there,” Guzman said. “That’s what happened.”
Guzman said he still remembers all the details. The painful memory is vivid in his mind as he recalled what happened.
“He hit me and I stopped,” Guzman said. “My car was so messed up, I got out of the car and tried to help him out, but he was dead already. My first thought was I’m going to have to fight this kid. I thought he was going to get up and be mad because he hit me.
“But when I got out and he was dead a lot of stuff went through my head. I had never been in that situation. He was alive one minute and then passed away. I always tried to do good things for people and help people, stuff like that. Being in that spot, being in the presence of someone dying, it was devastating for me.”
A police investigation exonerated Guzman of any wrongdoing. It didn’t matter. He still needed to get away from La Vega and clear his mind. He turned to his Minor League teammate Nomar Mazara, who lived 70 miles south in Santo Domingo.
“He just needed to be away from all of that, so he came to stay with me and my family,” Mazara said. “My family loves him. He was still really sad with what happened. We were pretty young, but stuff like that happens. I was just trying hard to help him let it go. It wasn’t his fault. Ronald, he is human, he had to move on and keep working.”
Mazara and Guzman first met playing for the Dominican Republic team that won the Junior Division championship in the 2010 Reviving Baseball in Inner Cities (RBI) World Series. A year later, they signed at the same time with the Rangers and played together for the first three seasons in the Minor Leagues.
But that was starting to change. Mazara had been promoted from Class A Hickory to Double-A Frisco late in the 2014 season. Guzman had been limited by knee surgery and spent both 2013-14 at Hickory. In his second season there, he hit .218 with a .283 on-base percentage with a .330 slugging percentage. Getting stuck in the low Class A South Atlantic League for two years is an ominous signal your career is going nowhere fast.
“It was my first time getting hurt and it was my first time hitting friggin .210,” Guzman said. “It was a couple of rough years.”
Everything changed after the accident, beginning with the support he received from his family and the Rangers. They stood by him through his troubles. General manager Jon Daniels said the club understands the perils of driving in the Dominican Republic. Cardinals outfielder Oscar Taveras and his girlfriend were killed in a car accident only one month before Guzman’s deadly collision.
Spending an offseason with Mazara changed Guzman in many ways. It served as an awakening for a young player who was getting nowhere in his career.
“Being in a daily routine with Nomar ... it was like you need to wake up, you need to get your head out of your rear, pretty much,” Guzman said. “Before that, the offseason was for rest. No working out like Nomar. I didn’t have anybody to look up to, so for me the offseason was for rest. I worked out a little bit and practiced a little, but when I saw what Nomar was doing, and what everybody else was doing, I’m like Little League, not doing anything. That’s when I really got serious.”
Guzman said without Mazara’s support during that difficult period of his life, he never would have become a Major League player. They remain inseparable.
“I wouldn’t have been able to exploit my talent,” Guzman said. “I wouldn’t be able to work out and do what I need to do to prepare myself for a full season. I didn’t know what it really takes. It changed my whole mentality -- this is what you need to do to be able to be successful. If that hadn’t happened, I wouldn’t have had anybody to tell me what I needed to do.”
Guzman said he went into Spring Training of 2015 in the best shape of his career. He didn’t even let himself get down when the Rangers decided he would once again start the season in Hickory. He stayed there for just a month, hitting .309, before being promoted to Class A High Desert in the California League.
Guzman's career was starting to get back on track.
“To be honest, mentally I was on a whole different planet from the year before,” Guzman said. “That year ... a lot of things happen for a reason. All the things that happened, if I didn’t go through that, I wouldn’t be here right now.”
Guzman moved up to Double-A Frisco in 2016, but still had people who doubted he could make it that high. One interviewer asked him if he thought he could even handle Double-A pitching.
“People didn’t think I was going to do anything at Double-A,” Guzman said. “They didn’t think I was good enough. That was just noise to me, it helped make me better.”
He hit .288 with a with a .348 on-base percentage and a .477 slugging percentage at Frisco, earning a late-season promotion to Triple-A Round Rock. His performance there in 2017 with a slash line of .298/.372/.434 earned him the Rangers' top Minor Leaguer honors.
But it did not get Guzman a much-expected September callup, another disappointment that he was much better equipped to handle emotionally.
“Me getting mad or saying a lot of bad things is not going to help me to get where I want to be,” Guzman said. “I just said, ‘I want you guys to be straight-up with me. If I did something you didn’t want me to do, or I do I need this to be better, or what do I need to do better to get where I want to be.’”
The problem was that Joey Gallo was playing first base and the Rangers had every intention of anchoring him there. That’s why Guzman wasn’t called up in September, and why he didn’t make the team out of Spring Training the following year.
“He has had a lot of ups and downs, but he is better for it,” Mazara said. “It was hard for him, but I see the maturity in him. He is not where he wants to be, but he is a much stronger person than where he was before.”
Guzman played in just five games at Triple-A Round Rock before the Rangers summoned him to Arlington to help deal with a rash of injuries to Delino DeShields, Elvis Andrus and Rougned Odor. Gallo moved back to the outfield and Guzman took over at first. He was there to stay. He had to miss a month this season because of a strained right hamstring, but Guzman refuses to let that get him down either.
He has been through worse.
“You have to go through stuff to be able to mature and be better as a person,” Guzman said. “I feel I went through a lot of stuff, a little slump, but it made me who I am. It also taught me to take something positive out of everything. I feel like I am more prepared for life as a man and for sports, for whatever, knowing that adversity is going to come, and you have to stay positive as you go through it.”
T.R. Sullivan has covered the Rangers since 1989, and for MLB.com since 2006. Follow him on Twitter @Sullivan_Ranger and listen to his podcast.