top of page

Conversations with the Herd: Mark Little

By: Brian Frank

Mark Little had a unique reaction when he was called up from Buffalo to Cleveland in June 2004.

“That was one of those times where I didn’t even want to go, because we were having so much fun in Triple-A, I knew we were going to win the Governors’ Cup, and I really enjoyed all my teammates,” Little recently told The Herd Chronicles. “I mean you can’t pass up an opportunity like that, but still – I was having so much fun. I remember talking to Marty Brown and saying, ‘Do I really have to go?’ He said, ‘What do you mean?’ I was like, ‘Well, I like it here.’ Good people, great teammates and a great team.”

Little played with the Herd in '03 and '04. Photo courtesy of the Buffalo Bisons Baseball Club.

Little’s enthusiasm for playing in Buffalo is quite a compliment to the organization and city, especially coming from a player who’d already experienced life in the big leagues.

The Edwardsville, Illinois native was drafted by the Texas Rangers in the eighth round of the 1994 MLB June Amateur Draft and came up through the Rangers minor-league system. He got his first taste of Buffalo baseball as a visiting player with the Oklahoma City 89ers in 1997.

I can remember the first time going in there in 1997,” he said. “We were in the American Association and that was my first year in Triple-A. Our team was all young position players and pretty much all veteran pitchers.”

“I mean they were loaded,” he said of the ’97 Bisons, who’d go on to win the A.A. Championship. “I just remember hearing – this team has got a million dollar payroll and we’ve got a bunch young punks from Double-A that are up here playing. That was my first experience with Buffalo, playing a Friday night game and having 20,000 people there. It was like you were in the big leagues.”

In 1998, Little was slashing .298/.351/.485 through 69 games with Oklahoma City, when he was traded to the Cardinals along with along left-handed pitcher Darrin Oliver and third baseman Fernando Tatis.

“I was the bag of balls – or the fungo and the bag of balls – that was traded in exchange for Royce Clayton and Todd Stottlemyre,” Little joked. “So, I made it over to St. Louis, which was pretty surreal because I grew up a big Cardinals fan. I grew in in Edwardsville, which is right across the river.”

Little’s major-league debut came with the Cardinals in September 1998, on a notable date in baseball history.

“My first day in the big leagues was the day (Mark) McGuire hit 62,” he said. “So you really couldn’t script it any better than that.”

Four days after watching McGuire break Roger Maris’s single-season home run record, Little was in the lineup to make his major-league debut against Houston at a sold out Astrodome. It was no easy task, with one of the greatest pitchers in baseball history on the mound for the Astros.

“I can remember the night before, (Cardinals manager) Tony La Russa telling me that I was going to start against Randy Johnson,” Little said. “I remember showing up at the clubhouse and the first thing you do is go check the lineup card – and I wasn’t in the lineup. I was like you’ve got to be kidding me. Why would he tell me I’m playing and now all of a sudden I’m not?”

The original lineup card ended up being a gag. It included nine left-handed hitters on it, with one of the hardest throwing, most intimidating left-handed fireballers of all-time on the mound.

“I ended up looking at it a little bit closer and he had all lefties in the lineup – and we didn’t have enough left-handed hitters, so he had the Cobra, (long since retired) Dave Parker, in the lineup,” Little said. “Then they ended up switching it out and I was playing. The thing that stunk was that was when La Russa was messing around with hitting the pitcher in the eight hole. So, I’m hitting in the nine hole and Darren Oliver is hitting in the eight hole – and Oliver raked Randy Johnson right before I got up my first at-bat.”

Little stepped to the plate for his first major-league at-bat with Oliver at first and the legendary Johnson glaring in from the mound.

“I think I had thirteen plate appearances against him and was 1-for-12 with a walk,” Little remembered. “The sad thing is, I knew every pitch that was coming because I knew what his tell was – and I was still 1-for-12 off him.”

And what was that tell?

“He was tight on his fastball and big on his off-speed,” Little explained. “He developed a split-finger later on, so you didn’t know whether he was throwing you a split-finger or a slider. Not that it mattered, when he’s throwing a 90 mile-an-hour left-handed slider from somebody who’s 6’8”, it’s still hard to hit.”

But in their first battle, Little had a successful plate appearance against the legend.

“I wasn’t known for a ton of plate discipline,” he said, “but I ended up walking against him.”

Little played in seven games for the Cardinals that September. The next two season, he played at Triple-A Memphis and was a key member of their 2000 Pacific Coast League championship team, before joining the Colorado Rockies organization in 2001.

“I made the Rockies in spring training of ’01 and again in ’02, which from an accomplishment standpoint – to go into camp as a non-roster guy and then to make the team in ’01 and play well – I was pretty proud of that,” he said.

“Then in ’02, Buddy Bell got fired and next thing you know, I’m getting traded to the Mets. John Thomson and I went over for Mark Corey and Jay Peyton. I spent three days as a Met and John Valentin, Edgardo Alfonzo, and Rey Ordóñez all got hurt in the same game – and they were like can you play second base, and I said, ‘Of course I can play second base.’ And they came back and said, ‘When was the last time you played second base?’ And I said, ‘high school.’ So, I got outrighted that night and they called up Ty Wigginton.”

That led him to the Arizona Diamondbacks organization, where he had the chance to play in the National League Division Series against the Cardinals, including getting a start in left field in Game Two.

“The Mets outrighted me and then I cleared waivers. So I was home for about twelve days. Then I showed up in Triple-A (Norfolk) – two days of practice, played in two games and then got traded to the Diamondbacks. I went there, played well, and got called up at the end of August so I’d be eligible for the playoff roster. I ended up making the playoff roster because Luis Gonzalez separated his shoulder. I got a start in Game Two against Chuck Finley. He split fingered me to death and I went 0-for-4. We got beat three in a row. They beat Johnson and (Curt) Schilling in the first two. Then obviously they lost to the Giants in the NLCS and the Giants ended up losing to Anaheim.”

“I was non-tendered the next year. I went back to the Diamondbacks kind of as an insurance policy for Steve Finley. I was leading the Triple-A team in average, home runs, and RBIs, I believe, and got released. That was one of the first times in my life I was like ‘You’re serious?’”

Little takes a big cut. Photo courtesy of the Buffalo Bisons Baseball Club.

At that time, Little was looking to sign with an organization where he’d be able to play in the International League. Cleveland was a good fit for a few reasons, including the fact that Little’s former manager in Colorado, Buddy Bell, was the Indians bench coach.

“My agent was trying to get me to stay in Tuscon and just wait and see – but I said I’m not going to play for a Pacific Coast League team, I’m going to an International League team where we can ride a bus. My agent was like, ‘Are you serious? You’d rather ride a bus than fly in an airplane?’ And I said, ‘Well, it’s not a charter flight, it’s a flight that connects in Salt Lake City or Dallas. And you’ve got to get up at three o’clock in the morning.’”

After signing with Cleveland, he was assigned to Buffalo. The next day, in a game against the Norfolk Tides, he hit a two-run home run on the first pitch of his first at-bat with the Bisons.

“I remember (Bisons manager) Marty Brown saying, ‘Is this guy for real?’” Little said.

“I was having a really good season when I got released. So I felt like I had something to prove when I got over there.”

Little loved playing for Brown, who was voted Baseball America’s Minor League Manager of the Year in 2004 and holds the record for most career managerial wins in the Bisons modern era with 312.

“People try to say that they’re a players’ manager,” Little said. “But when somebody has to say that they’re a players’ manager, they’re usually not. Marty never said it, but he was. He had a lot of respect for the guys, especially the older guys that were on that team and we all had a ton of respect for him.”

Little returned to Buffalo in 2004. During an April game in Rochester, he became the fourth Bisons player of the modern era to hit for the cycle, joining Dave Clark (1992), Nigel Wilson (1996), and Alex Ramírez (1998 playoffs). Since 2004, Justin Turner (2010) and Jim Negrych (2013) have also joined the cycle club for the Herd. Although considered a rare feat, hitting for the cycle almost became commonplace for Little.

“I don’t want to say, ‘Oh, I’ve hit for the cycle a lot,’ but I guess I have hit for the cycle a lot,” he chuckled.

He hit for the cycle four times in his career. Besides doing it for Buffalo, he also did it twice at the University of Memphis and once with the Triple-A Memphis Redbirds.

“I also had a game in the big leagues against the Expos where I homered in my first at-bat, I doubled, I singled, I think I grounded out,” he remembered. “Then I had an at-bat in the bottom of the eighth against Ugeth Urbina. I remember Jeff Cirillo telling me, ‘If you hit a ball, no matter what, go for three.’ And I hit a ball into right-center field and I think in any other park it would have been a triple but I ended up hitting my second home run of the game. I guess I could have missed home and gotten my triple. But I’d rather have two home runs.”

Little hit for the cycle twice in college and twice in Triple-A. Photo courtesy of the Buffalo Bisons Baseball Club.

Three days after Little hit for the cycle for Buffalo, the entire Bisons lineup exploded, pounding out 25 hits in a 25-13 win at Rochester.

“I can remember catching a ball and the wind was blowing out so hard – that I bet it started out outside of the stadium, outside of the stands, and the first baseman and I think Brent Abernathy was playing second base – they gave up on it. I just came running in from right field and made the play. We scored nine runs in the first inning in that game.”

After spending about a month in Cleveland, Little returned to Buffalo after injuring his shoulder and joined a Bisons team ran away with the I.L. North. Buffalo ended up finishing ten games ahead of second place Pawtucket.

The 2004 playoffs featured the Herd facing off against the Durham Bulls in a best-of-five semifinal series. After dropping the first two games at Durham, the Bisons returned to downtown Buffalo and won three straight to advance to the Governors’ Cup Finals.

“We had a you can’t beat us’ attitude,” Little said. “That’s ninety percent of the battle, knowing that when you step in the box or you jump on the bump that there’s no way that this person is going to beat me because they haven’t worked harder than we have all year. I think that’s where chemistry comes in to play, because ultimately you don’t want to let your teammates down. I kind of think that’s what’s missing in the game today.”

The Bisons caught a break in the finals against Richmond. After splitting the first two games in Buffalo, the final three games of the series, which were supposed to take place in Richmnd, were moved to Buffalo due to the remnants of Hurricane Ivan battering North Carolina.

“I remember us having to bat first at home, which is always a weird thing,” Little said. He continued with a chuckle, “I think (Bisons superfan) Mark (Aichinger) might have forgotten that we were the home team and was yelling at us that we stink.”

The Bisons won the next two games to win the series three games to one and become Governors’ Cup Champions. It was the third league championship of the team’s modern era (since 1985) and second since rejoining the International league in 1998.

“After we won it, I remember sitting in (trainer) Nick Paparesta’s office with Dusty Wathan, Ernie Young, and Brett Abernathy, and (Cleveland’s director of player development) John Farrell walked in. I remember asking him, ‘Hey John, what wins championships?’ And he said, ‘talent.’ I said, ‘I’m going to disagree with you.’ Not that we weren’t talented, but you can have all the talent in the world and there can be no chemistry and you’re not going to win. That’s what that team had – and every team that I’ve ever been on that won a championship – we had chemistry. We were good. We had timely pitching and timely hitting. But that ability to walk into the clubhouse and I’ll say love one another every day is so critical to the success of an organization.”

Signing autographs for Bisons fans. Photo courtesy of the Buffalo Bisons Baseball Club.

“I couldn’t have had a better time than ’03 and ’04 in Buffalo. What a great city and great front office. I loved Marty Brown. I’m still good friends with some of my teammates today. That was awesome, playing in the International League and playing for the Buffalo Bisons.”

After his two seasons in Buffalo, Little played one more season in the Florida Marlins organization, before retiring as a player. He took a job with the Milwaukee Brewers as a roving outfield and base-running coordinator, before changing careers to medical device sales. He’s currently in a sales leadership role with a medical device company.

“I went back to school the last year I played to finish my degree,” he explained. “I did it all online from the University of Memphis. Then I started interviewing with medical device companies and pharmaceutical companies at the All-Star break of the last year. So when I was roving with the Brewers, every time I would come home for a week I would interview with a different company. At the end of the summer, I had the opportunity to go to work for a company. I guess I wanted a tangible skillset that wasn’t baseball. I wanted something that nobody could take away from me if a team got off to a slow start and they fire the GM and the new GM comes in and fires the big league manager and all those guys end up being displaced and you have to start from scratch again. I felt like I had spent thirteen years playing and I owed it to my family to provide something that was a little bit more stable.”

After all these years, he still stays in touch with president of Rich Baseball Operations Mike Buczkowski, who was the Bisons general manager when Little was played for the Herd.

“I stay in touch with Bucz,” he said. “We’ll get on these little kicks where we’re texting. Especially during COVID, when the Blue Jays were playing there. He was telling me about all of the changes with the clubhouse. I always thought it would be really neat if Buffalo could get a big league expansion team because I think they would support it. I think it would be great. The Rich family is so good to the community. They were great to us as players, having us out to their summerhouse in Canada. It just feels like family.”

The Bisons organization and the city of Buffalo still have a tremendous impact on Little and his family.

“Baseball was just such a huge part of our lives,” he said. “I’ve got a daughter who’s running track at A&M and my son’s playing baseball at Wichita State. They don’t remember a lot of it, but they’ve seen the pictures and it’s like they feel like they remember because they’ve seen the pictures. What a great place to play. If I could go back and play a game that’s where it would be.”

bottom of page