NEW YORK -- Roberto Clemente's death literally served as an awakening for Alki Steriopoulos.
When the charter plane carrying the Hall of Famer and supplies he was taking to earthquake-stricken Nicaragua crashed over the Atlantic Ocean 40 years ago, it helped to save Steriopoulos from a crash of his own.
Steriopoulos, then a 19-year-old musician in the Midwest, was on the road after a late-night New Year's Eve gig when he began to fall asleep at the wheel. It was the news of Clemente's death that startled him.
"While I was on the turnpike, with my chin on my chest, an announcement came on the radio that a plane carrying Roberto Clemente had gone down at sea and everybody was dead," Steriopoulos said. "The shock of hearing it snapped me out of my stupor, my dead sleep."
Steriopoulos was driving a van down the highway and, at high speed, came so close to slamming into the back of an 18-wheel gasoline tanker, he says he couldn't see its license plate feet in front of him.
He stood on the brakes, he said, as the van swerved, spun, tumbled over the median and into the opposite side of the highway where he avoided further disaster.
"In the very real sense," Steriopoulos said, "Clemente's death was responsible for saving my life."
Thursday at Pearl Studios, Steriopoulos led a group of actors in a staged reading of "21," a musical about Clemente's life. The writer/musician hopes the production and the story can inspire others the way Clemente inspired him.
"[Clemente] had a saying which was, 'If a man has a chance to make a difference in life, but doesn't, then he hasn't really been here,'" Steriopoulos said. "So all my life, I always kind of thought, sometimes you make a difference in peoples' lives and they don't even know it. How crazy is it, for a guy to say that, and in my case, the difference he made in my life was to save my life and he was dead and couldn't even know it."
Steriopoulos began writing about Clemente's life in story form before it grew longer, and he eventually put it to music.
"Here we are five years later," he said.
The reading, at Pearl Studios in New York, was held with hopes that enough investors and supporters would climb on board and usher the production on to the next stages. Ideally, a workshop would come next, followed by regional productions and then perhaps a Broadway run.
The 12-person production featured Kyle Robert Carter reading as Clemente, Gizel Jimenez reading as his wife, Vera, and Famecia Ward reading in a prominent role as Clemente's deceased sister, Anairis.
After his death on Dec. 31, 1972, at the age of 38, Clemente was posthumously inducted into the Hall of Fame as one of baseball's most legendary players. He's known for his play on the field -- he was a 15-time All-Star right fielder, a World Series and National League MVP and two-time World Series champ -- but also for his philanthropy off it and for the love he held for his home country of Puerto Rico.
The performance tells a somewhat mystical tale of Clemente's life and emergence as one of baseball's most beloved superstars and the unique bond he held with his sister, who died when he was a young boy.
Steriopoulos wrote the book, music and lyrics. Jerry Dixon directs, John DiPinto is the music director and Shannon McGough is the stage manager.
"We've gone through several drafts and ways of telling this story from different points of view," Steriopoulos said. "Everybody always just focuses on the ballplaying. But the fact is that there's a deep, rich story behind who he was as a man. We're trying to show that he's inevitably linked with baseball and where he came from, but also his family and what that culture was like. This is what made him.
"It is baseball, but it's much more."