By Andrew Kahn

We were fascinated by the pigeons. A dozen or so had congregated in center field, just shy of the warning track. At various points they took flight—thus becoming a “kit,” I’ve since learned—but kept returning to the Citi Field outfield grass. We sat in our second-level seats offering elaborate potential scenarios. As it turned out, their outcome was predictable yet delighted us just the same: A hitter led off the ninth with a drive to deep center, chasing the center fielder backwards, which caused the pigeons to take off in unison. These are the things you notice—and enjoy—when your team is 24 games back.

I don’t have to convince you, dear reader of a weekly baseball column, that baseball is great. But I won’t assume you continue to watch your team every day after they are ostensibly eliminated from contention. I was at Citi Field on Monday when the 58-78 Mets played the 52-84 Phillies. The two teams have been bad all season, and neither is going to the playoffs this year.

The starting lineups weren’t exactly inspiring. There was only one .300 hitter (Phillies rookie Rhys Hoskins, who has 91 at-bats). Eight of the players, including Phillies starting pitcher Mark Leiter, made their major league debut last season or earlier this year. Like Leiter, Mets starter Rafael Montero had a higher career ERA (in his case, 5.14) than career wins (4). Mets rookie Dominic Smith and his .200 batting average hit clean-up. You get the idea.

None of this stopped 28,808 people (and some dogs) from showing up for the Labor Day afternoon game. The stadium’s highway exit was backed up, the parking lot was crowded, and the Shake Shack line took a half hour to navigate. It was 78 degrees and sunny, a touch warm if you sat in the sun all day but perfect if you were in the shade like we were.

We cheered at the unlikely sight of our slow-footed back-up catcher, Kevin Plawecki, beating out an infield single, stealing a base, and scoring from second on a sharp liner to right field, all in the second inning. We cheered again when our past-their-prime shortstops Jose Reyes and Asdrubal Cabrera hit home runs in the third.

When my wife and I left our seats to get food in the fourth, the Mets erupted for six runs to take a 10-0 lead. It was an old-fashioned hit parade, with Brandon Nimmo, Juan Lagares, Gavin Cecchini, and Norichika Aoki contributing.

Given the choice, we would have preferred to see David Wright, Yoenis Cespedes, and Michael Conforto. They’re all injured. Jay Bruce, Curtis Granderson, Lucas Duda, and Neil Walker were traded last month. For those keeping score at home, the Mets dumped their starting first baseman, starting second baseman, two starting outfielders, closer, and back-up catcher in exchange for six minor league relief pitchers and a player in the Brewers organization who, as far as I can tell, has still not been named.

That they were replaced on the major league roster by prospects, not-really prospects, and cast-offs is largely due to injuries. Just before we left for the ballpark on Monday, the Mets announced that Wright, Conforto, infielder T.J. Rivera, and reliever Josh Edgin will have season-ending surgeries this week. Cespedes is out for the year and Noah Syndergaard hasn’t pitched since April. Infielders Wilmer Flores, a fan favorite, and Amed Rosario, the franchise’s top prospect who debuted last month, are on the shelf. Starting pitchers Steven Matz and Zack Wheeler won’t pitch again this season. That’s not everyone, but again, you get the idea.

The healthy if somewhat unqualified ballplayers we did see on that beautiful afternoon were a nice distraction. When the Mets took an 11-5 lead into the ninth, my younger brother suggested he could pitch the last inning and preserve the victory. We weren’t so sure, especially when manager Terry Collins didn’t have faith that a salaried major leaguer, Hansel Robles, could do it.

Robles had pitched a perfect eighth and recorded two outs in the ninth, but after three singles and a wild pitch yielded two runs, Collins turned to his closer, giving us a chance to boo the Mets manager (and Robles) for perhaps the last time in person. One batter later, the game was over. Even if the victory had started a long winning streak—and it didn’t, as the Mets were blown out the next night—it wouldn’t have made much of a difference. Injuries derailed any hope for the 2017 season, and there are important questions the team must answer in the offseason. This is true not just for the Mets and Phillies, but the Marlins, Braves, Pirates, Reds, Padres, Giants, Blue Jays, Tigers, Athletics, and White Sox.

When your team is out of the hunt, you come for the milkshakes and stay for the pigeons.

Andrew Kahn is a regular contributor to CBS Local. He writes about baseball and other sports at andrewjkahn.com and you can find his Scoop and Score podcast on iTunes. Email him at andrewjkahn@gmail.com and follow him on Twitter at @AndrewKahn

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