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LAKELAND, Fla. – In 2006, Jim Leyland would have jumped at the chance to return to the Pirates. But no one in the front office ever bothered to ask, and Leyland wound up managing the Detroit Tigers.

Two seasons and two Pirates managers later, Leyland believes both sides made the right move.

“There’s no way that I’ll ever separate myself from that organization,” Leyland said Sunday. “It’s home for me, and the people there are so good. And there’s the fact that the Pirates gave me a chance (in 1986). You never forget those things.

“They’re wonderful, wonderful memories. But I think they’re better off and I’m better off also for not managing there (again).”

The Pirates lost 98 games in Leyland’s first season as manager and 89 games when he left a decade later. In between, he helped guide the club to division titles in 1990-92.

The Tigers are Leyland’s third team since leaving Pittsburgh. He won the World Series with the Florida Marlins in 1997, then spent a forgettable season with the Colorado Rockies in 1999.

Three years ago, Leyland spent a lot of time at PNC Park working as a scout for the St. Louis Cardinals. That offseason, the Pirates and Tigers were searching for a manager.

When Leyland’s phone finally rang, it was Detroit general manager Dave Dombrowski making the job offer.

“It turned out to be perfect for me,” said Leyland, who had played and managed for 18 years in the Tigers’ farm system.

“The fact that Dave and I won a World Series together (in Miami), maybe that’s the only reason I got the job,” said Leyland, who turned 63 in December. “I doubt very much that I would’ve gotten any other managing job. With the new wave of young general managers, most of them don’t want a guy like me.”

The Pirates instead hired Jim Tracy. After the team lost 189 games in two seasons, Tracy, along with practically the entire front office, was fired.

The Tigers won 88 games last year and finished second in the American League Central. This past offseason, Dombrowski boosted an already potent roster with two flashy trades that netted Edgar Renteria, Miguel Cabrera and Dontrelle Willis.

Those moves made Detroit a trendy pick to win the World Series.

“Everybody says there’s a lot of pressure,” Leyland said. “But it’s good pressure because we’ve got a good team. I love expectations.

“There were a few years when I managed Pittsburgh when there weren’t many expectations. You don’t want that as a manager. If there aren’t expectations, it normally means you don’t have a chance.”

Leyland said the Pirates made a good choice by hiring John Russell to replace Tracy. But, Leyland added that the most important ingredient for any team is acquiring talented players — it doesn’t matter if they arrive via trades, free agency or the draft.

“John Russell knows as much baseball as I do,” Leyland said. “We all know about the bunt, the hit and run and the intentional walk. We’re not stupid. The fact of the matter is, if the best players execute against the players who aren’t as good, the best players are gonna win.”

Sometimes, that means taking a gamble by trading away a popular player. Leyland pointed to when the Pirates dealt Tony Pena to the Cardinals in 1987 for Andy Van Slyke, Mike LaValliere and Mike Dunne.

“I remember somebody telling me, ‘You can’t trade Pena. He’s our most popular player,’ ” Leyland said. “Look, when you lose 100 games two years in a row and draw 700,000 (fans), you don’t got no popular players.”

Leyland remembers playing against the Pirates last year during spring training, and expecting them to finish around .500.

“I still believe they have some nice pieces,” Leyland said. “If they finish out the puzzle with the right piece and it fits, they’ve got a real chance to be very good — and I don’t think it’s going to be long (in coming). But you’ve got to be willing to do it.”

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