Maddon enjoys intensity of AL East

Maddon enjoys intensity of AL East

LAS VEGAS -- Joe Maddon is going to the White House.

The Rays manager and his new wife were invited by President George W. Bush to attend an intimate dinner with six other couples on Jan. 4.

"It's something we're really looking forward to," said Maddon of the affair which was set up when noted columnist George Will called Rays vice president of communications Rick Vaughn to convey the invite.

Since the Rays moved into baseball's upper echelon by crashing the Fall Classic, Maddon's life has been a whirlwind. But he hasn't forgotten where he butters his bread, so the coming season is on his mind. And the American League's Manager of the Year could not hide his excitement about the possibilities for 2009 when he met with reporters Monday at the Winter Meetings.

Despite the success the Rays achieved in 2008, the fact remains the club still plays in baseball's toughest division, the AL East. But that reality has never been something Maddon has shied away from.

"I think it's great to play in this division," said Maddon, who got married an took and extended trip to Europe once the season ended. "I've said it before. Playing in this division keeps you on your toes every minute of the day. I think it's wonderful to have a high level of expectations on our back. I think it's great, and I think it's going to bring out the best in our guys."

In the past, the Rays have been the hunters, a last-place club wanting to become a winner. Now they will be the hunted in 2009, a first-place team other clubs want to knock from their perch.

"I think that's a good thing," Maddon said. "I really believe our guys will be up for the challenge. I believe the conversation we're having right now and I'm going to have with them just about these same topics when I get to camp, and I want them to understand and embrace the idea that we have a big target. I think it's a good thing.

"When you are working in practice -- whether it's Spring Training or pregame, etc. -- you know that the work has got to be exemplary. You know that. I think it's a good thing."

Maddon has experience being with a team that has won the World Series from when he served as the bench coach for the 2002 Angels. So he understands the challenges of a team trying to defend what it accomplished and remembers some of the problems that can derail a champion.

"I think you really have to pay attention to the injury factor from the year before," said Maddon. "Guys that had been hurt, they're having less time to recover going into the next season. Furthermore, I think we're going to really take our time in Spring Training, I think."

With the World Baseball Classic taking place in March, Maddon plans to slow down his Spring Training routine.

"[There will be] less throwing in the beginning, less hitting in the beginning, less running in the beginning -- [we're going to] really parcel out the instruction, the day," said Maddon. "In the past, you've seen where I've been rather intense with the guys even from Day 1. ... We're just going to build into that intensity more so."

Maddon does not believe complacency will be a problem for the Rays in 2009.

"No, I'd like to think not," Maddon said. "I mean, we got there, but we still have a major goal ahead of us right now. I think once you've tasted the last eight teams of the year, you want to be one of those every year. You don't want to have a barbecue around Oct. 3 or 4 and invite everybody over for a couple beers and a steak and watch the playoff game. I hate that.

"I want to believe our guys have gotten to the point where they want to participate and they want to be the show for everybody else having a little bit of a barbecue come October. I really believe that. ... I believe our guys are going to want it again, and I'd be very surprised [if they are complacent]."

Bill Chastain is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.