In Detroit, Ken Griffey Sr. promotes cancer screenings, reflects on Sparky

Tony Paul
The Detroit News
Ken Griffey Sr. poses for a photo in front of the Spirit of Detroit on Monday.

Ken Griffey Sr. has a lot of fond memories of Detroit, most notably the Detroit Grand Prix -- which always seemed to be going on when the New York Yankees would come to town in the 1980s -- and the Hotel Pontchartrain.

He now will add Monday's visit to the memory bank, as he visited Detroit to spread awareness about prostate cancer.

Griffey, a prostate-cancer survivor for 10 years, participated in the kickoff of men's health week, even helping deck out the Spirit of Detroit statue in a "Blue Monday" T-shirt.

"At least get men to talk about it," said Griffey. "It can be cured and treated -- if it's diagnosed early."

The cause is close to the Griffeys, including Senior, 66, who played in the major leagues from 1973-91, and Ken Griffey Jr., 46, who played in the majors from 1989-2010 and will be inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame this summer.

Father and son decided last February to start traveling the country to create awareness.

Ken Griffey Sr. had four uncles who died of prostate cancer, and had a younger brother who was recently diagnosed.

Ken Griffey Sr. said his mom, knowing the genetics, always preached getting checked out early.

"She made sure," said Griffey, "that we stayed on it."

And Griffey was fortunate. As a ballplayer and later a coach, he had an annual physical. His cancer was detected so early, he didn't even need chemotherapy or radiation.

Other men aren't so lucky. He travels around talking about symptoms and screenings. He suggests if there's a family history, men should get checked out by age 35; if not, 40 usually is the benchmark age.

Ken Griffey Jr. speaks out around the country, too, when he can. He's a bit busy now, getting set to be enshrined in Cooperstown in July. He's a first-ballot Hall of Famer, after hitting 630 homers in his 22-year career, spent mostly with the Seattle Mariners, including two seasons, 1990-91, he got to be a teammate of Ken Griffey Sr.'s. In one ballgame, they hit back-to-back home runs.

"I am very thrilled," said Ken Griffey Sr., who played 19 seasons, mostly with the Cincinnati Reds. He won two World Series with the Reds; his son never won a title.

"I'd tell him, 'I have all the rings, you got all the home runs.' He didn't like that too much. 'But now, you're getting the big ring.'"

Ken Griffey Jr., who also played for the Reds and briefly for the Chicago White Sox, will be inducted alongside Mike Piazza. For his career, he batted .284/.370/.538, won an MVP, 10 Gold Gloves and became an icon -- for that sweet, left-handed sweet, and the way he wore his hat backward.

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But Dad certainly was no slouch, batting .296/.359/.431 with 152 homers during his career, which also included a brief stop with the Atlanta Braves.

In Cincinnati, he was part of the famous "Big Red Machine," starting in right field for a team that won back-to-back World Series in 1975-76 under Sparky Anderson.

Of course, it was impossible to come to Detroit and not think about the late legendary manager, who was, amazingly, fired by the Reds in 1978 and hired by the Tigers in 1979. Within five years, he had won a World Series in Detroit.

"Sparky meant a lot," Griffey said. "I remember when they hired him, the newspapers had headlines that said, 'Sparky Who?' Shortly after that, everyone knew. He was one of the best managers I ever had.

"He let you play the game, but you couldn't make mental mistakes. You just had to play the game the right way."