They all pondered the question with degrees of pessimism, skepticism and realism, like a batter who has only a split-second to decide whether he is going to swing at a Bob Feller fastball, a Sandy Koufax curve or a Steve Carlton slider.
Three veteran coaches who have developed three of the most successful high school baseball programs in the state--Simeon's Leroy Franklin, New Trier's Mike Napoleon and St. Rita's Mike Zunica. Sean Duncan, executive director and publisher of Lake Forest-based Prep Baseball Report magazine and PrepBaseballReport.com, was also a developer.
What is the state of high school baseball in Illinois?
They claim the caliber of competition is very good, pointing out that Illinois is one of the leading producers of major league players outside the warm weather states of California, Florida, Texas and Georgia. A large majority of the state's top 100 players will go on to compete at Division I colleges.
But they are concerned that the number of knowledgeable and dedicated coaches is declining, that many players aren't being taught proper fundamentals, that many programs are being negatively affected by budget cuts and young athletes are burning themselves out because of specialization.
"Kids play high school sports for two reasons--for camaraderie and to extend their careers to the next level," Duncan said. "Some coaches help, some don't. A high school coach's job is to teach fundamentals. Some don't see the big picture of trying to win games and not burn out the kids. Fewer kids are playing two or three sports. They only focus on one sport and burn themselves out. They don't get well-rounded."
Major league scouts are astounded by what they observe at some pregame sessions, how coaches prepare their kids, how some accomplish a lot in a short period of time while others are disorganized and chaotic.
"You can tell that some coaches have a plan, but others have no plan, no methodology," one scout said. "And you can see it in their games."
"The quality of the game has gone down in the last two years," said Franklin, assessing the Chicago Public League. "A lot of old-time coaches aren't coaching anymore. Young coaches don't put in the time to be successful. They just coach. They don't go to clinics. To get better, you must develop young men, teach, go to clinics. Certain schools always win because they teach the fundamentals of baseball."
Franklin, who plans to retire after the 2013 season, has won more than 700 games since 1981, has sent over 100 players to college, has had 26 players selected in the major league draft, produced one major leaguer (Wes Chamberlain) and one national player of the year (Jeff Jackson). He currently has three players with potential to play at the next level--senior
Blake Hickman, junior Corey Ray and sophomore Darius Day.
He cites budget cuts and lack of interest and motivation by young coaches as two major reasons why the quality of the city program has declined. There is no money to pay assistant coaches. At a Chicago public school clinic in January, only 40 coaches attended.
"To be involved and help young men, you have to put time into coaching," Franklin said. "Kids need help today, to keep them off the streets. I tell my kids: 'You are playing not to just play baseball but to get better at the game and to get a scholarship to go to college.
"CPS has got to put more money into baseball. Kids play basketball, basketball, basketball in Chicago. Instead, CPS cuts coaches. We need coaches. A lot of baseball coaches don't know how to practice or teach the game...how to throw, how to field, how to turn a double play, how to bunt, how to play the game, basic baseball."
Napoleon, who has won over 720 games and produced two state championship teams and two second-place finishers in 27 years, claims the game isn't as good as it used to be. Why? He cites less teaching, less fundamentals and less people putting in time, fewer lifers, too many coaching for the wrong reasons. But the good news is more and more kids are going to college.
"People will look at the statistics at the end of this year and will see lower averages, lower home run totals and lower RBI totals across the board because of better pitching and less of a trampoline effect in the bat," Napoleon said.
"Today, everyone is enamored with the three-run homer. But we'll see a shift in emphasis because of the introduction of the smaller bat. You'll see more bunting and more hit-and-run, things that were forgotten in the last 10 years because people emphasized the home run.
"In the 1980s, when I got into coaching, they didn't have new bats. With the old aluminum bat that didn't have the trampoline effect of recent bats, people played the game like it was supposed to be played...suicide squeeze, pitching, speed, bunting, hit-and-run, the basics. Now I think we're going back to the 1980s."
Zunica, in his 16th year, guided St. Rita to second-place finishes in the 2009 and 2010 state tournaments and summer league titles in 2005 and 2009, recalls playing baseball in the Catholic League in the late 1970s and early 1980s and insists it is a mistake to try to compare players and teams from one era to another. But he thinks he knows what is wrong with the game as it is being played today.
"You have a bunch of kids who think it is better to be rated in some publication--one of the top 20 players in the state--and are more worried about that than winning games," Zunica said. "I say: 'Be a player, not a prospect.' But they are more caught up with being more of a college or professional prospect.
"They would rather focus on throwing a baseball at 90 miles per hour than learning how to pitch. They are more focused on hitting a 400-foot homer than having quality at-bats. Or they are more concerned about their 60-yard dash time than learning how to run the bases properly.
"You connect all the dots and it comes down to money. People are seizing an opportunity to make money from teaching kids how to pitch and run and hit...speed trainers, personal trainers, pitching gurus, hitting instructors.
"Sure, there is a place for all of that. But the kids aren't being taught enough about the mental and fundamental and team side of the game. In baseball, little things are really the big things. Kids think big things are big things, throwing 90 mph or hitting 400-foot homers. But all the little things that don't show up on stat sheets are big things that win games."
Zunica believes strongly in his philosophy to teach his kids to be baseball players and not prospects. He points out that only 610ths of 1 percent of all high school baseball players go on to play college baseball. He currently has 31 playing in college.
"The last time I saw a statistic on major league representation by state, Illinois was ranked No. 5, which is eye-opening," he said. "It says coaches can do the job and kids can come out of the Midwest. Our kids are tougher. They can play in all types of weather. They have a greater upside. They don't get burned out. They are more passionate about the game."