- Associated Press - Tuesday, August 3, 2010

ANDERSON, IND. (AP) - At 83, Carl Erskine is making the biggest comeback of his life.

He’s now the de facto ambassador for his hometown.

The former Dodgers pitcher, who returned to Anderson after retiring in 1959, is tapping the connections he built during his career as a local businessman to help the struggling city. He ditched his long-held disdain for Yankees fans to form a bond with Indianapolis Colts president Bill Polian, a relationship that helped Anderson score its biggest coup in decades _ getting the Colts back for training camp.

“We’re downsizing, the automotive industry has kind of dried up, but the Colts coming back is a piece of the puzzle,” Erskine said. “It’s not the saving grace, but it is a positive piece.”

City residents can’t remember the last time they heard such promising news.

Unemployment in the Anderson metropolitan area was 11.6 percent in June, higher than state and national averages. The city that once had the highest per-capita income in Indiana, had its own professional basketball team and gained national attention for its 9,000-seat high school gym is now struggling to survive.

Abandoned businesses and vacant homes can be found throughout the city. The Guide taillight factory, once one of Anderson’s largest employers, has been razed, and the 27,000 high-paying automotive jobs that made up a centurylong love affair with the auto industry are a distant memory.

In their place are entry-level jobs in the hotel, food service and retail industries. There aren’t enough of those to help undo the damage.

Residents are leaving the city, which expects the 2010 Census to show the fourth population drop since 1970. The city’s two high schools are being consolidated into one, and local officials continue to debate whether to close the landmark gym, the Wigwam, to save money.

Those who remain struggle to stay afloat. Nearly 15 percent of Madison County residents _ and 21.4 percent of children under 18 _ lived in poverty in 2008.

“Jobs are next to impossible to find,” said Anna Sykes, a 24-year-old hotel worker who moved to Anderson when she was 2. “People with college educations are going to McDonald’s to work because that’s the only place they can get a job.”

Colts center Jeff Saturday has seen the plight himself.

He works with Anderson’s fire rescue house mission, a charity that provides temporary housing for families who lost houses in fires. The mayor’s brother, Skip Ockomon, a firefighter, helped start the organization after two children died in New Year’s Eve fire two years ago.

Saturday thinks teammates and coaches can identify with what Anderson and its citizens have endured.

“I’d say 99 percent of all football players come from the lower or middle class, so these are our families, these are our neighbors, this is what we all were raised around,” Saturday said. “I play a kids game and get paid well for it. But this is where we were raised.”

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