The day to articulate that passion came Tuesday, four years later and perhaps sooner than even Mattingly had expected. But with Joe Torre out after 12 seasons, Mattingly boarded a flight to Tampa, Fla., and put on his best face, becoming the second candidate -- and perhaps the most likely -- to assume the club's managerial reins.
"I knew from the beginning what I wanted," Mattingly said. "I just wasn't willing to talk about it publicly. I was trying to take it all in."
Mattingly, 46, followed Joe Girardi in the search process and was put through similar paces Girardi faced Monday, spending time at Legends Field and the Yankees' Minor League complex in a lengthy interview session.
Mattingly also had face time with George Steinbrenner and his sons, Hank and Hal, saying that he enjoyed the opportunity to finally sit down with the three -- for the first time, he said -- and speak from the heart regarding his feelings for the Yankees organization and baseball in general.
One of the most popular Yankees in franchise history and a premier first baseman over a playing career that spanned from 1982 through 1995, Mattingly still garners some of the loudest reactions from fans when he is introduced before postseason games or on Old Timer's Day.
Part of Mattingly's charm likely comes from his unassuming style and consistently hard-working performance on the field, which fans identified with.
Becoming manager of the Yankees could make Mattingly a more controversial figure, especially in the New York media market, but he rejected any concern that the position may alter the perpetually warm reception toward the one-time American League MVP.
"If I get the opportunity to manage this club, it's about going forward," Mattingly said. "It's about winning games and doing whatever we can to win. If I don't do that and I don't do my job, and I get criticism, that's part of it.
"I'm not afraid of criticism or what somebody may think. I'm going to do what's best, trying to make a good decision and an intelligent decision. If it doesn't work out, I'm going to take the heat. I understand it. I've been in New York, and it's part of it. If I had fear, I wouldn't have got on the plane."
Of the three candidates general manager Brian Cashman has lined up to lead off the managerial search, Mattingly is the only one without experience leading a team, save for two games as a fill-in when Torre served one-game suspensions this year.
Girardi piloted the Florida Marlins to 78 wins in 2006, securing National League Manager of the Year honors, and first base coach Tony Pena -- who interviews Wednesday -- directed the Kansas City Royals to 198 wins in 483 games from 2002 into 2005.
Mattingly said that he does not consider his lack of formal experience an issue. Since signing on as the Yankees' hitting coach for 2004, and going through the 2007 season as Torre's bench coach, Mattingly said that he has been plotting X's and O's in his mind along with the manager with an eye toward this chance.
While Mattingly said those experiences had embedded a lot of Torre's thought process, the former captain said he had also taken items -- good and bad -- from his managers as a player, offering Billy Martin and Lou Piniella as examples.
"Every game I'm involved with, I'm pretty much managing in my mind," Mattingly said. "As games went along, I've been managing for four years, for my own part, and paying attention to things that go on around the club, the way things are handled, addressed and taken care of.
"I've heard that experience thing come up a lot, but in my own mind, I've been managing for the last four years. ... This is what I want to do and I'm capable of doing it. I'm letting people know how I feel, and we'll see what happens."
Speaking on a conference call with reporters from Florida, Mattingly's tone was decidedly more confident than it was in New York on Oct. 9, when he said that anyone who follows Torre would be coming into "not necessarily a great situation" and that it would be "like following John Wooden."
Provided two weeks' perspective from those comments, Mattingly said he would not take them back, saying that he was prepared to handle the challenges of the position if offered.
"I don't have any regrets of saying it, because really, it's true," Mattingly said. "At this point, the organization has made their decision that they're going to move on to make another choice. I'm 100 percent ready in my mind to do it and really look forward to that challenge if I get that opportunity. I think it's an unbelievable opportunity for whoever gets it."
Bryan Hoch is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.