Jesus Guzman Shows Critics He Can Play

SAN ANTONIO, Texas - Remember Rod Smart? Or should I say "HeHateMe"? Eventually signed by the Carolina Panthers as a kick-return specialist and backup tailback, the former XFL-star made a living out of sticking it to doubters and "experts."

The same could very well be said of Missions third baseman Jesus Guzman. You see, they hate him - with "they" being the few who even know who he is, judging him only as a 165-pounder - too light play the hot corner in the major leagues.

"I know I can play third, second or short," Guzman said through an interpreter. "Other people will say that you can't play somewhere, but all you can do is continue to play hard."

For a year and a half in the United States, Guzman has toiled in relative obscurity, left off top prospect lists after signing with the Mariners' organization as a non-drafted free agent in 2001. That early lack of notice has since served as motivation to prove naysayers wrong.

"I've never let my guard down, I've always kept me head up," Guzman said. "You just have to show people what you're about and let them know that you can play."

After spending three years in the Venezuelan League, where he'd win the team's MVP award for Aguirre in 2003, Guzman is finally starting to garner recognition outside his own ball club, recently named a starter for this year's Texas League West All-Star squad.

"I'm happy about it," Guzman said. "It surprised me, and I'm going to try to make the most of the experience."

The June 21st mid-season classic, slated for a 7:00 p.m. start at Frisco's Dr. Pepper/Seven Up Ballpark, marks the 21-year-old's first invitation to a minor league All-Star game. Missions manager Dave Brundage said he's never seen a player more excited upon hearing of his selection.

"I was excited for him," Brundage said. "There aren't many awards and accolades out there for minor league players, so it's nice to be recognized amongst your peers."

Guzman, hitting .259 with five home runs and 22 RBI, began making headlines even before the start of the season, albeit for the wrong reason, when he and 37 other minor leaguers tested positive for a banned substance and were suspended accordingly. Guzman missed the first 15 games of the season, and admitted that the layoff has made it difficult to find his way on offense.

"Right now, I haven't felt very comfortable at the plate, and I'm just trying to get back to where I was last year," Guzman said.

The slow start inversely compares to what Guzman did in 2004, when the Sucre, Venezuela-resident got his big break. After Inland Empire second baseman Ismael Castro ended his season due to a knee injury, Guzman was promoted on April 27, making his first start two days later.

"Playing everyday last year really helped me out," Guzman said. "You've got to keep making adjustments so the league doesn't adjust to you."

Wasting no time at all, the youngster registered three hits in his debut and never let up through his first campaign in the States. Guzman paced the 66ers in doubles with 35, while hitting .301 with 71 RBI on the season.

The third baseman has obviously not fared as well this season, leading the team with 10 errors.

After making three errors in a game against Tulsa earlier this season, Guzman has shown a newfound commitment to his position, turning up at the ballpark early to take extra ground balls from the Missions coaching staff. The work seems to be paying off, as he has made just three errors since the June 24th trifecta.

"He's a great guy that's willing to learn," said Missions infielder Eddie Menchaca. "He's made so much of an improvement defensively. He's more relaxed and playing the game rather than letting the game play him."

In a loss to Corpus Christi on June 11, a diving Guzman snagged a grounder to his left and whipped the ball to first to get the first out of the ninth inning. Leading 4-3 enter the last frame, the Missions would have won had it not been for two mental mistakes.

"I think he's improved," Brundage said. "Like I said before, he's a young player, and he's becoming more comfortable out there and getting better everyday."

Along with a steady, improved plate performance, plays like this could help shed a new light on Guzman among scouts, experts and "haters" alike.

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