It took Alki Steriopoulos more than 30 years to transform the inspiration from his near-death experience into a full-blown musical.
But now that his musical, “21,” is slated to premiere at Pittsburgh Playhouse between Friday, Oct. 17 and Sunday, Oct. 26, his finished product couldn’t come at a more relevant time.
Steriopoulos, a 19-year-old at the time, was driving home from a New Year’s Eve party in 1972 when he started to doze off behind the wheel. While driving down the road with his radio on, Steriopoulos was dangerously close to slamming into the back of a large truck when a breaking news update came on the radio. Roberto Clemente, right-fielder for the Pittsburgh Pirates, was involved in a plane crash. It was believed that all members on the flight were dead.
The chilling news was enough to bring the young musician back to reality, and he slammed on the brakes before his car could hit the back of the truck.
Pittsburghers have shown a renewed interest in Clemente, the city’s most revered sports figure, following the late superstar’s 80th birthday this past August. The show will also follow the Sept. 30 anniversary of Clemente’s 3000th hit, which came just months before the tragic plane crash that took his life.
Steriopoulos’ “21” will be the second theater production about Clemente’s life to premiere in Pittsburgh this fall. “Clemente: The Legend of 21,” a re-imagined former off-Broadway play, was staged at the Byham Theater last month.
Craig Britcher, curatorial assistant to the western Pennsylvania sports museum at the Heinz History Center, said Clemente’s importance wasn’t realized for a while. His difficulties with the English language, along with his brutal honesty, rubbed many fans and media members the wrong way, at least initially.
“He was perceived pretty negatively at first,” Britcher said. “Many people, though, don’t understand that in Latin American cultures, if you ask someone how they feel, they will be very honest with you. Clemente sometimes had a reputation for being a bit of a hypochondriac.”
Many of Clemente’s physical difficulties throughout his career stemmed from a car accident during his rookie season. It caused the star right fielder to have back problems throughout the course of his career.
But Clemente’s legacy was formed around his legendary arm.
“He was a .317 hitter, but his outfield arm was one of the best of all time,” added Britcher.
Clemente won a league MVP award in 1966 and was named World Series MVP in 1971. After his death, he became one of the few players to have the five-year Hall of Fame waiting period waived, and he was inducted in 1973.
Just as Clemente’s life and career captured the hearts of so many baseball fans in Pittsburgh and across the country, his death had quite a profound impact on the life of Steriopoulos, a composer and performer who wrote the music and dialogue for “21.”
“When you’re young, you kind of just go on with your life,” Steriopoulos said of his near-death experience.
But as Steriopoulos grew older, he started writing more and more, and he was immersed in short stories during his 40s.
“I thought to myself, as I grew older, how interconnected everything is, and how we affect the lives of each other in ways that you don’t ever know,” Steriopoulos said. “Ultimately, [Clemente] had this profound influence on my life by his death, and he could never know that.”
Steriopolous, a native Pittsburgher who grew up on the North Side, explains how he started writing a short story as an ode to Clemente. With tremendous pride emanating from his face, he said his story “started to sing” to him, until eventually his reflective piece began to take the form of a musical.
“That was seven years ago,” Steriopoulos said, referring to when he composed the music.
Now, Steriopoulos and director Richard Sabellico are about to bring the work to life onstage.
“This is definitely geared toward the sports fanatic in Pittsburgh. When I say I’m working on a musical about Roberto Clemente, the first question I hear is ‘When is it?’ ‘Where is it?’ He’s still a hero to these people,” Sabellico said.
Set in both Puerto Rico and Pittsburgh, “21” follows the course of Clemente’s career from his early days playing ball in the Caribbean league, until New Year’s Eve 1972 when he took that fateful flight, intended for his earthquake relief effort in Puerto Rico.
“The storyline follows him through his career: his being discovered as a 19-year-old in Puerto Rico, through all the racial problems [and] the reporters who wrote bad things about him,” said Steriopolous.
The star outfielder would often say that his sister was there for him at pivotal moments in his life, that she would calm him when he became frustrated and help him make decisions.
“The twist on my story is his sister, Ana Iris, who died when [Clemente] was two,” Steriopolous said. “For the first two years, they were inseparable, she carried him on her hip. Clemente said that his entire life she was there for him.”
Reverence and a strong sense of mystery are both instrumental components in Clemente’s legacy.
“Along with having a tremendous sense of pride, he was very generous. At the same time, if he was wronged, he would speak up,” Britcher said.
But he doesn’t agree with Clemente being elevated to a saintly status. In spite of all the philanthropic work he did and his noble effort to provide earthquake relief to Puerto Ricans, the man was a human being with shortcomings just like anyone else.
“If we elevate him too much, we start to lose the ‘I can do it’ attitude,” Britcher said.
It’s that same attitude Steriopolous and Sabellico are hoping to inspire in the audience come October.
“I hope that people come away saying, ‘Tomorrow at work, or with my family, I’m just going to be a better person because I’ve learned about this guy,’” Steriopolous said.