Minor Leaguer brings board game takeover to Twins' clubhouse

February 25th, 2024

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Matt Canterino has given his elevator pitch enough to know the drill: When explaining a new board game to a professional baseball player, he’s got five minutes to explain the rules and give them a sense for how to be competitive before they lose interest.

There’s a surprising amount of downtime in clubhouses for some players, and it’s not uncommon to see guys sitting at a table engrossed in a card game, or, for a chunk of Twins history, energetic games of dominoes.

With that said, to see a full-on board game in a colorful box, with a rulebook, game pieces, a board and all the fixings? That’s not a sight you often see -- but that’s what we stumbled into one morning early in camp, when the doors opened to the scene of Canterino sitting at a table in the middle of the room with Brent Headrick, learning the tile placement game “Azul” together.

Digging a little deeper, it turns out that’s not even Canterino’s diversion of choice.

“Gosh, over the time, I've probably taught about 30 people in the Twins' [organization] the game of Catan,” Canterino says.

In case you haven’t come across it at a game night, Catan (formerly called “Settlers of Catan,” and often referred to simply as “Settlers”) is considered by some as the gateway to more “serious” board games, so to speak, as a good combination of real strategy, luck and gamesmanship, in the form of collecting and trading resources with other players to build structures on a game board.

And Canterino is perhaps ideally suited for bringing it to his fellow ballplayers.

Coming off Tommy John surgery, the chatty, energetic right-hander’s filthy arsenal and career 1.48 ERA in the Minors point to him becoming a big leaguer if he can stay healthy; he was also a mechanical engineering student at Rice University, his fiancée is in medical school and his board game fanatic older brother works as a software engineer at Lockheed Martin.

It’s no wonder, then, that the list of Catan players in the Twins’ clubhouse includes big leaguers like Alex Kirilloff, Trevor Larnach, Louie Varland, Josh Winder, Bailey Ober, Randy Dobnak, Kody Funderburk, Headrick and even superstar-in-the-making Royce Lewis, who said he was leery about how “nerdy” it seemed -- but quickly got sucked in.

“I was the same way,” Larnach said. “I was like, ‘I've got to build houses and roads with brick and wheat? What are we doing here?’”

There were points in late 2022 when Lewis, Kirilloff, Larnach, Winder, Ober, Dobnak and Canterino were in Fort Myers rehabbing injuries -- and in the hours over lunch, after workouts and into the night, various combinations of those players and their significant others would plug away at game after game of Catan, often with so many people that they’d need to split into multiple games.

“We're going to figure out a way to pass the time,” Winder said. “So as opposed to getting up to stuff that's no good, we found a way to compete and create some community and some camaraderie.”

Well, until it isn’t. These are freakishly competitive humans, after all.

“If you play with Canterino, friendships get lost sometimes,” Headrick says. “We’d play on the Minor League side, and him and this kid named Niklas Rimmel, the German kid, they would go at it, where it would be dead silent and we'd just be trying to finish to get out of there.”

At some point, Canterino ambles across the clubhouse into the conversation.

“We're talking crap about you, Mr. Intense Screaming Match,” Ober says.

“Yeah, we said you and Rimmel, we almost lost friendships when you two played,” Headrick says to goad him.

(At this point, the normally quiet Funderburk appears out of nowhere. “Oh, are we talking about Catan?” he asks eagerly.)

“No, we did not!” Canterino exclaims, further asserting that he has never flipped a table during a game.

“That sounds like something you would do,” Ober says.

Given that Canterino is the bringer of games, it’s no surprise that many in the clubhouse point to him as the best at the game. Canterino takes a night to think, then says the next day that Winder stands out. Larnach is described as “sneaky good,” which is nice for him, as he’d expressed some hurt that his name hadn’t come up.

Another name that comes up: Montana Ober, wife of Bailey. In the highly competitive Ober family, the winner signs the box after the game.

“The person who's very good at playing the slow game is Royce,” Ober adds. “He'll say, ‘I suck. I'm out of this game.’ And he'll be quiet for 30 minutes and then all of a sudden, he flips over all the cards. It's like, ‘Are you kidding me?’”

(This checks out, by the way. For those to whom this means something: Lewis says he’ll often look to hoard the development cards, which can lead to unexpected wins.)

It does seem that this Twins clubhouse likes its brain games. Every morning, Canterino, Headrick, Varland, Funderburk and No. 10 prospect David Festa sit quietly around the table doing the day’s USA Today crossword. Headrick spent the offseason learning how to solve a Rubik’s cube and is teaching Canterino, who is, unsurprisingly, a quick study.

“See, I know what to do, but he knows why to do it,” Headrick said. “So he's studying the why of the cube.”

Catan hasn’t yet shown up in the big league clubhouse on an actual work day, since the rounds take a bit too long, and it’s tough to break it off halfway through and pick it back up later -- but, maybe, give it some time.

“This group, everyone meshes really well and has fun with each other,” Larnach said. “If you have the diversity to be able to play board games or other types of games and people are open to that, that's good to just add more fun to the clubhouse.”