Brian Dozier sees a plan in every puzzle

Brian Dozier's inquisitive side can take him in some interesting directions.

Several years ago, he saw a YouTube video of an Australian teenager who set the Rubik's Cube world record by solving it in less than 10 seconds.

Not content with simply marveling and sharing the clip with friends, he determined that he, too, would achieve a state of maximum proficiency with the 3-D puzzle. He even turned the pursuit into a family affair.

"I said, 'I'm going to learn the algorithms to make them flow,''' Dozier says. "So I bought a couple, and my wife and I sat in bed every night learning them.''

The fruits of Dozier's time and effort were on display when he sat in the Minnesota Twins dugout with buddy Josh Willingham and solved the cube in 96 seconds -- not world class, certainly, but awfully impressive for a novice.

In numerous endeavors before and since the Rubik's Cube phase, Dozier has used that self-improvement principle and desire to master challenges as a driving force toward self-discovery. From his small-town Mississippi roots to his current place as an All-Star second baseman for the Twins, Dozier has always regarded life as an endless series of puzzles to be confronted, attacked and, ultimately, resolved.

As a freshman at the University of Southern Mississippi, Dozier was looking for a diversion because he was bored with dormitory life and didn't have a girlfriend. So he sat down at a piano and picked up a guitar and learned to play both instruments from scratch. By his senior year, he was traveling around Hattiesburg as part of a band called "Silky Smooth.''

During two recent offseasons, Dozier visited Nicaragua with his wife, Renee, and dug ditches to install clean water systems in conjunction with a program called "Amigos for Christ.'' Not content with simply parachuting into Central America for a few days, Dozier put in the long hours to learn Spanish -- a skill that helped him relate to the Nicaraguan locals -- and to Latino players in the Minnesota clubhouse.

The end result is a professional athlete who defines "multifaceted.'' Dozier might be the only player who can introduce himself over the PA system in two languages and play his own walk-up music on two instruments, while inspiring youngsters in the stands and dispensing advice to struggling teammates in the dugout.

He goes to church every Sunday -- schedule permitting -- embraces his role as an ambassador for the game, has a flair for home run trots and was blessed with the best hair this side of San Francisco Giants shortstop Brandon Crawford.

Teammate Glen Perkins refers to Dozier as an "everyman'' because of the skepticism he has overcome on his way to prominence. Most of Dozier's baseball acquaintances regard him as just a normal guy who's having a blast playing the game.

"He's got a good way about him,'' says Derek Falvey, the Twins' chief baseball officer. "Guys like being around him. Just from the way he goes about it, you can tell that he loves the game and being around it. What you see on the field is what you get.''

What you get with Dozier is a 29-year-old All-Star who keeps finding ways to reinvent himself. While the Twins were stumbling along on their way to a major league high 103 losses in 2016, Dozier went long ball crazy (23 homers combined) in August and September, hitting 40 of his 42 home runs as a second baseman to set an American League record for the position. He joined Harmon Killebrew as the second player in franchise history to crack 40.

That's some impressive company for a born striver who played college ball for the Southern Mississippi Golden Eagles because Ole Miss and Mississippi State -- the two big dogs in the Magnolia State -- weren't interested enough to spend much time recruiting him.

The coaches and scouts who dot Dozier's résumé will tell you he's a deceptively good athlete with a competitive streak. He was a 3-point shooter in basketball at Itawamba Agricultural High School and a quarterback and kicker on the football team, with a personal-long field goal of 48 yards. He's an expert hunter and fisherman, and he's a wiz at pingpong, pool and cards.

And he always plays to win. As a teenager, Dozier took part in weekly pool tournaments at Fulton Skateland with his buddy Clay Weatherford, and the tourney organizers gave them a choice of a trophy or a $10 first prize. Years later, Dozier's mother was cleaning out the attic and found a stockpile of trophies she didn't even realize he had won.

In addition to his gifts on the field, Dozier possesses a personal magnetism that prompts teammates to gravitate to him. Earl Winn, the scout who signed Dozier out of Southern Miss in June 2009, was struck by it from his first viewing.

"As scouts we talk about the 'it' factor,'' Winn says. "It's hard to define and put it into words, but you know when you see it and feel it. He had standout, separator-type makeup and a very good vision of who he was as a player and wanted to be. The man's got charisma.''

That blue-collar work ethic is wrapped in a refreshingly humble exterior. After Dozier returned to Southern Miss for his senior year and completed his work toward a sports marketing degree, Winn and Twins cross-checker Tim O'Neil kept lobbying on his behalf, and Minnesota chose him in the eighth round. Dozier agreed to a $30,000 bonus under one condition: He got to pick the restaurant.

"I was staying at a Courtyard in Tupelo [Mississippi] and I told Brian, 'Dinner is on me,''' Winn says. "He told me Outback Steakhouse was his favorite, so that's where we went.''

Dozier earned a reputation as a grinder on his way through Minnesota's development chain, but the long-term projections were modest. In 2011, Baseball America praised him for his fundamentals, baseball IQ and contact-oriented approach at the plate but ranked him as the organization's 30th-best prospect.

"His biggest weakness is his lack of power, as he doesn't project to hit more than 5-10 homers annually,'' BA wrote.

Longtime Twins general manager Terry Ryan saw something more several years ago when he watched Dozier take batting practice at Roger Dean Stadium in Jupiter, Florida. "Terry turned to me and said, 'This young man has some raw, over-the-fence power,''' Winn recalls.

It took a trip to the golf course in 2011 -- when Dozier was playing for Double-A New Britain and Tom Brunansky was the team's hitting coach -- for the Twins to tap into that power. After Dozier cranked a 300-yard tee shot, Brunansky did a double take and asked him, "Where did that come from?''

Teacher and pupil got down to work the next day, and Dozier began to incorporate the mental and mechanical adjustments necessary to add more sock to his game. He broke through with 18 homers for the Twins in 2013 and has increased his production to 23, 28 and 42 in the three years since.

Dozier does lots of damage while hitting his share of wall-scrapers. He pulled 40 of his 42 long balls to left field in 2016, and his average home run distance of 396.7 feet ranked 94th in the majors in 2016, according to ESPN's hit tracker.

Minnesota teammates who were around during Dozier's formative years will attest that he has overcome a case of directional impairment on his way to a successful run in the majors. MLB geography is not his strong suit.

The other Twins learned the extent of Dozier's naïveté when they gave him a pop quiz during a road trip in July 2012. He seemed like a congenial, good-natured rookie, so the veterans summoned him to the front of the bus and asked him to identify baseball's six divisions and the teams that inhabited them.

As a product of tiny Fulton (population: 4,180), Dozier was familiar with the Atlanta Braves and the National League East from watching them on TBS as a youth. But he began to stumble when asked to identify the home of the Rangers, the next team on the schedule.

At a loss for an answer, he took his best shot and guessed that the Rangers play in the -- American League South?

"Guys still remind me,'' Dozier says, laughing. "Whenever I see Justin Morneau, he always gets a kick out of it.''

Dozier still slips the occasional "dang'' and a few other homespun colloquialisms into conversation, but he's equally comfortable meeting sponsors and season-ticket holders, signing autographs for kids along the dugout rail or drumming up interest in the Twins at the team's winter caravan.

The biggest challenge is finding time amid his humanitarian and baseball outreach pursuits. The Doziers canceled their Nicaragua trip last winter because they were taking part in an MLB ambassador tour of Tokyo and Taiwan. But Renee still visited Haiti, and she and Brian continue to send money and baseball equipment to their friends in Nicaragua.

"The American League South?" Brian Dozier, when asked to name baseball's divisions during his rookie season

On his Twitter feed, Dozier refers to himself as "A lover of Jesus playing baseball for the Minnesota Twins on the side.'' That designation carries a responsibility to those less fortunate than him.

"You're talking about six-person families who might live on 50 cents to a dollar a day,'' Dozier says. "I throw the athletic part aside. Just as a human being, as a Christian man and woman, that's what we feel our job is on this earth.''

When the Twins signed Dozier to a four-year, $20 million contract extension in the spring of 2015, it led to speculation that a long-term deal would follow and he might finish his career where he started.

The business element intruded upon everybody's reverie last season. Dozier's name was a constant on the offseason trade rumor grapevine, and the rumors subsided only when the Los Angeles Dodgers opted for Plan B and filled their second base void by acquiring Tampa Bay's Logan Forsythe.

"When you lose 103 games and your second baseman hits 42 home runs and he has a contract that's favorable for teams, you know you're going to get calls,'' Falvey says. "We prepared for it. I called Brian and said, 'I'll keep you informed each step of the way throughout the offseason. We're never going to shut out avenues to improve the team. But we value you as a meaningful part of the team, and we're going to be honest with you and give it to you straight.' I think he appreciated the candor.''

Since that tenuous period, both sides have moved forward in a businesslike manner. The Twins, powered by shutdown pitching from Ervin Santana and Hector Santiago, are 7-7 and showing some early fight in the American League Central. Dozier is off to a so-so start at the plate, but he provided an April highlight with an inside-the-park home run off James Shields on Sunday.

If and when Dozier finds himself drifting this season, he will try to visualize his 2016 white-hot phase, when he hit 28 homers after the All-Star break and showed a side no one could have envisioned during the Itawamba years. Twins manager Paul Molitor, a first-ballot Hall of Famer, has given him tips on ways to bottle the sensation.

"Molly told me that when he had those feelings -- probably a lot more than I ever will -- he would try to remember every single facet of what he was experiencing,'' Dozier says. "He'd think about the smell of the grass, the cut of the grass and every other element he was experiencing. It's a beautiful thing when a guy is throwing 98 and it seems like 88.

"For me, everything seems different now. I've found the longer you're in the game, the slower it becomes. The learning curves are there each and every year, but you become wiser and you realize what you have to do in order to succeed.''

Dozier's work ethic and ambition already have taken him from baseball afterthought to All-Star. Now, he's about to learn that the biggest piece of the puzzle will be taking his game from very good to something even better.