In the Cheap Seats

By BOBBY "BUTCH" BURNEY | News-Telegram Sports Writer

May 5, 2007 - Ditch Dirk? Trade Jet? Re-sign Stack?

For a team that last season looked like it could make deep playoffs runs year-after-year by having its key players locked up, the Mavericks now look like a squad whose roster is as inflexible as it is unathletic.

Being embarrassed in the playoffs will do that.

Dallas has Nowitzki, Terry, Erick Dampier and Josh Howard locked up for years to come, along with virtually everyone on the roster. Jerry Stackhouse - about the only Maverick with a backbone - and Austin Croshere are the only free agents. Resigning Stackhouse should be priority No. 1.

Having key good players signed to contracts is one thing. Having mediocre ones is another.

The Mavericks, though, have little flexibility because they are already over the salary cap. They need to get more scoring off the bench, more athletic on defense and tougher all over. But how?

Dallas owner Mark Cuban has his most challenging off-season ever. It's clear the Mavericks have to get a player who will not shrink in the playoffs. I'm a big Nowitzki fan, but his last two playoff series, against Miami and Golden State, have entrenched his reputation as a soft player.

Likely, the only way to get such a tough, playoff-tested player is in a trade. Terry is probably the only movable commodity. Howard is untouchable and Devin Harris does what virtually no other Maverick will do - penetrate the lane. Those are really the only valuable players left.

Cuban's not going to trade Nowitzki, and he shouldn't, because the return would be too low right now.

That may mean the Mavericks have to improve from within. That would be the biggest challenge.

Spotlight on Rangers: Mavericks out in the first round of the playoffs. Stars out in the first round. Cowboys out in the first round. Rangers out ... period.

The Rangers, it appears, face the same problems as the Mavericks - a core group of players who don't have what it takes.

The spotlight hasn't been on the Rangers lately because of the Mavericks' embarrassment, the Stars' playoff futility and the Cowboys' draft. I'm sure over-his-head GM Jon Daniels wishes there was something else to divert attention away from the worst team in baseball. There isn't, now.

New manager Ron Washington's honeymoon with the hometown fans is already over. Being next-to-last in batting and ERA and dead-last in fielding percentage will do that.

Washington assured us that his pitching staff would pound the strike zone, but instead they've issued 122 walks and hit 16 batters in 29 games, averaging 4.8 free passes a game, the most in the American League.

Washington said his team would catch and throw well. The Rangers have committed 25 errors, are last in the AL with a .976 fielding percentage, and have allowed a major-league high six passed balls.

Washington said his batters would be patient at the plate. The result has been 201 strikeouts and 91 walks - well above a 2-1 ratio.

One kudo to Washington, though. The Rangers have stolen 25 bases and only been caught four times. Think how much higher that would be if the Rangers could ever make it to first base.

Right Again: For all of us who knew that allowing Jesuit into the UIL would only be the first step for intrusion by private schools, we were right.

A bill has been filed in the state Legislature to allow all private and parochial schools the option of joining the UIL. The measure is being spearheaded by 5,000-member megachurch, Cornerstone Christian Church, founded by a televangelist some 30 years ago.

Cornerstone Christian school gives churches a bad name.

The school has been embroiled in controversy several times in the last few years for recruiting basketball players from out-of-state and internationally for the sole reason of playing hoops. Win-at-all-costs and bending rules is exactly the opposite of what private and parochial schools should be teaching.

Cornerstone administrator Alan Hulme even had the audacity to say that their kids "just want a level playing field."

Apparently, it doesn't matter that Cornerstone recruits players to try to win championships. Public schools can't do that. How is that a level playing field?

The absolute basic premise of UIL inclusion is that students must live in the boundaries of their school district, with their parents or legal guardian, to participate in extracurricular activities. Private schools wipe out those boundary lines.

If Cornerstone has the money - maybe more importantly, if televangelist John Hagee is willing to part with it - then the bill will pass. if there's one thing that drives the sorry ol' Texas Legislature, it's not religion or even politics. It's money.

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