Tim Elko, our fathers, and the ‘game of failure’
I’ve come to understand a simple truth: The very worst things could be happening in the world around you, but everything feels so much better while watching a baseball game with your dad.
I owe my obsession with the game to Dad. He coached my tee ball team, we played catch in the front yard until it got too dark to see, and he taught me swing mechanics. He made so many sacrifices to watch me play in Little League, and he encouraged me after I realized in middle school that my dream of becoming a big league player was just so laughably, unbelievably unattainable.
He let me stay up way past my bedtime to watch our Boston Red Sox finish close games. Watching us play the Yankees, he taught me the skill of respectful trash talk (I later learned the art of vulgar trash talk in the right field Ole Miss student section). I’ll forever cherish some of the lessons I learned when Dad took me to my first Major League game at the old Turner Field in Atlanta, and our first trip to Fenway Park was borderline spiritual.
But perhaps the most important thing dad has taught me about baseball is that it’s a game of failure. The sport’s best hitters routinely fail to reach base about 70% of the time. Even the most dominant pitchers can struggle to find the strike zone for no good reason, and the most intelligent players are always liable to make fielding or baserunning errors. Some of the greatest baseball teams in history lost close to half of their season’s games.
Baseball has never been about avoiding that inevitable failure, Dad has always said; it’s about how you respond when it happens.
So that’s why, sitting with my dad at home on Saturday night watching our beloved Ole Miss Rebels decisively win their first game at the College World Series, I found myself completely lost in the story of Tim Elko.
Elko, the captain of the team that has nearly reached the pinnacle of the sport, has become a true college baseball legend for responding remarkably to failure. Ahead of this Father’s Day, I wondered if Elko’s dad would agree.
“To say there have been ups and downs is an understatement,” John Elko told me, laughing. Then, before I even mentioned my dad’s most important baseball lesson, John Elko says to me: “You know, baseball is a game of failure.”
My dad and Tim Elko’s dad are on to something.
Tim’s freshman year, he quickly realized after arriving on campus that SEC baseball teams are loaded with talent and he’d have to wait his turn. His sophomore year, he began to emerge but a nagging injury held back his production. His junior year in 2020, the hottest hit streak of his life — and his team’s incredible 16-game win streak — was abruptly ended when the COVID-19 pandemic shut the world down.
He entered his senior year in 2021 thinking it would be his last at Ole Miss. He led the team to an impressive 21-6 start with a high national ranking, and Elko was absolutely smoking the ball. Early that season, he was racking up the accolades: SEC Player of the Week, Bragan Slugger of the Week, Collegiate Baseball National Player of the Week.
Then, in a freak accident replayed hundreds of times by Ole Miss fans, Elko rolled over first base awkwardly in a meaningless mid-week blowout and tore his ACL. The lifeblood of the team, everyone rightfully assumed, was out for the season.
“My immediate thought was that his career is probably over,” John Elko said of the shocking injury. “It was just a devastating feeling, to be honest with you.”
But five days later, Tim video-called his parents. He showed them his new knee brace, and he told them what the team doctors had just told him.
“The minute they told him he could possibly play through the injury, he said, ‘Yeah, we’re going to do this,’” John Elko recalled.
Just 33 days after the injury, Elko came into the game as a pinch hitter at Texas A&M and blasted a three-run home run. He led Ole Miss to game three of the Super Regionals last year and hit seven home runs and 18 RBI — all on a torn ACL. That performance led to unironic calls that the university build an Elko statue at Swayze Field.
That’s an impressive way to respond to an unexpected moment of failure.
“When he decided to play on the bad knee, we both felt and said it at the same time that God was gonna move here, that he was gonna make something happen,” John Elko said. “And the rest is history. It shouldn’t have been able to happen the way that it did, but it did. You can explain it any way you like, but we prefer ‘miracle.’”
After that 2021 season ended, Tim had a decision to make: Should he take his chances and enter the MLB draft with a bum knee, or should he come back to Ole Miss for one more “COVID season” to rehab his leg and try to prove himself to scouts?
“He thought and prayed about it for a few days, but made the decision to come back to Ole Miss,” John Elko recalled. “He said, ‘We’re gonna go to Omaha and win a national championship.’ That’s why he came back.”
Well in Omaha one year later, Tim Elko has his squad knocking at the door of the national championship series. It’s an incredible accomplishment considering how badly the team was playing in March and April. The turnaround, too, can be largely credited to Elko and the team’s other leaders. Elko’s play this season has been incredible and has surely impressed pro scouts: 22 home runs, 71 RBI, 58 runs scored and 41 walks.
During the game on Saturday night, an ESPN reporter interviewed John Elko at Charles Schwab Field. All the fathers and sons sitting in that stadium and watching on national TV saw Tim have just a decent game: he had one hit, one walk and scored the first run of the game. Of course, John Elko talked about how proud he was of his son and the team.
It’s a strange thing to consider, but all those fathers and sons who watched the game Saturday night aren’t too unlike the Elkos. All those fathers want is for their sons to succeed and to respond well after moments of failure, and all those sons want is to make their fathers proud.
Tim Elko sure is successful, and he’s clearly done a great job responding to failure. And John Elko sure is proud. That’s what it’s all about for the Elkos and for all of us.
I’ll be watching the remainder of Ole Miss’ run here in Omaha, and my dad will be back at home. We’ll talk on the phone after the games and discuss the key plays and big moments. But for the remainder of the College World Series, we’ll both be watching out for that same old maxim: How do players and teams respond to the inevitable failure?
My dad and I like the chances of the team whose leader has proven he knows how to respond to failure well. And you have to believe John Elko feels the same way.