07/13/2010 12:00 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

The Collapse of Cleveland: Steinbrenner, Pekar, and James

It's been a tumultuous past few weeks for Cleveland. First LeBron James bolted. Then comic book author Harvey Pekar died. Now George Steinbrenner is gone as well.

It would be hard to think of more telling signs of the decline of Cleveland than the sagas of these three natives of a once-mighty metropolis located at the mouth of the Cuyahoga river, itself legendary for catching aflame. Pekar captured working-class -- and Cleveland's -- anomie in his comic books. With his constant self-disparagement and kvetching, he was the anti-hero, as the movie about his life, "American Splendor" underscored, reveling in his nebbishness, grumpiness, and plain paranoia.

Steinbrenner, invariably clad in his double-breasted, gold-buttoned blue blazers, represented what Pekar most resented: the man, "the Boss," as he was often called. Steinbrenner would never have hit it big unless he had decamped from Cleveland, which he did to buy the New York Yankees. He took a mighty bite out of the Big Apple. Perhaps he had a bit of Pekar in him, too, in the form of his resentments -- Steinbrenner was something of a rebel, the upstart from the Midwest seething with animosities who came, saw, conquered.

Now it's LeBron James' turn to defect from Cleveland, turning him from a local hero into the city's Despicable Me. Pekar would surely have been revolted but not surprised by that defection. Steinbrenner would have applauded it.

The sad truth is that Cleveland's glory days are barely even a distant memory. The city is in a shambles, a monument to nothing other than industrial decline. And its basketball team's approach to winning truly was cavalier, which is why LeBron James shouldn't be taking heat for going to the Heat. King James would never be able to win and wear a crown in Cleveland. In contrast to the city, he shrank from failure. Perhaps the surprising thing isn't that he left, but that he stayed as long as he did.