OCTOBER 30, 1989
It'll happen at sports arenas, sometimes when he's attending a Utah Jazz game. A crowd's thunderous clapping and foot stomping will make Billy Kehl feel as if his stomach is dropping, the building is crumbling and the earth is moving. And for a split second he's a terrified 11-year-old again. More than 14 years have passed since Kehl appeared on SI's cover, cradled in the arms of his uncle, San Francisco Giants righthander Kelly Downs, after an earthquake measuring 7.1 struck the Bay Area before Game 3 of the 1989 World Series. Kehl still calls that the scariest moment of his life, but even as the ground at Candlestick Park shook, he knew he had found his rock in Downs.
"I learned that day that I hated being afraid and I didn't ever want to be in that situation again," says Kehl, who along with other family members of players left the stands and went onto the field until the earthquake had stopped. "I was scared and there was someone there to protect me. All I wanted to do the rest of my life was make sure someone else didn't feel that way. That's why I joined the Marines [at 18]."
Kehl served five years as an aircraft mechanic stationed at Yuma, Ariz., and received an honorable discharge in 2001. Soon after, he needed his uncle's support again, but this time it was to help him overcome alcoholism and the breakup of his marriage. Neither Kehl nor Downs wishes to reveal much about the young man's downslide and recovery. "Sometimes the world looks different through someone else's eyes" is all Downs will say about his part.
Downs made three relief appearances in the '89 World Series, which was postponed for 10 days and was finally won by the Oakland A's in four games. After pitching for 6� years for the Giants and then 1� with the A's, he retired after the '93 season with a 57-53 record and 3.86 ERA. He stayed close to the game by coaching youth teams and giving private pitching lessons in suburban Salt Lake City, where he resides with his wife of 24 years, Shelley, and daughters Danielle, 17, and Courtney, 14, and son Landon, 13.
"I was retired for about two years and went nuts," he says. So Downs joined his brother-in-law Mike Greene at the concrete-cutting business the two men had started in 1989. Downs supervises crews that work at construction sites and on demolition jobs. He's uniquely bonded to one of his employees—Kehl, a wall-saw operator for his uncle by day and an aspiring airline pilot at Salt Lake Community College by night. Kehl, who has joint custody of his daughter, Samantha, 3, with his ex-wife, Lisa, also attends a 12-step recovery program and says he has been sober for nearly a year.
As for Downs, his family, job and duties as an assistant baseball coach at Viewmont High keep him fulfilled. He looks back on the SI cover and laughs. "Most people get on it for doing something great," he says. "I got on it by accident."
In Kehl's eyes his uncle did something great.