Ball tax foes deduct IRS' plan for '62' fan Congress, Clinton prompt it to back down on 'gift' tax

Baseball: Mcgwire Passes Maris

September 09, 1998|By David L. Greene | David L. Greene,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON -- Rest assured, baseball fans. You've got friends in high places.

A day after the Internal Revenue Service acknowledged that a federal gift tax of more than $100,000 might apply to the fan who catches Mark McGwire's 62nd home run ball and returns it -- for free -- to the slugger, some members of Congress fought back with scornful words and threats of legislation.

And the IRS, an agency that has tried to make itself more benevolent, was limping back from yet another public relations blow, explaining that its complex gift tax would not cruelly ruin the day for a lucky fan after all.

"Sometimes, pieces of the tax code can be as hard to understand as the infield fly rule," IRS Commissioner Charles O. Rossotti said yesterday. "All I know is that the fan who gives tTC back the home run ball deserves a round of applause, not a big tax bill."

The words proved prophetic when Busch Stadium grounds crew worker Tim Forneris, 22, snared the ball McGwire hit just over the wall for No. 62 last night and returned it to the slugger for free, saying "just don't tax me."

Earlier in the day, before the IRS relented, the air here carried the whiff of yet another scandal. House Democratic leader Richard A. Gephardt, who represents St. Louis, chided the federal agency for messing with America's pastime.

"Only the IRS could turn a once-in-a-lifetime catch into a once-in-a-lifetime Catch-22," Gephardt said.

Rep. Bill Thomas, the California Republican who chairs the House Oversight Committee, said yesterday that he would introduce a bill ensuring fans they could catch the home run balls hit by McGwire and Sammy Sosa and return them with tax-free impunity.

Mike McCurry, President Clinton's spokesman, called the idea of taxing fans "the dumbest thing I've ever heard in my life."

The fuss began brewing on Monday, when Mike Davidson, the fan who snagged McGwire's 61st home run ball, said he intended to return the ball to the hitter and expected nothing for his goodwill.

The value of that ball was estimated by collectors to be about $100,000. Under the tax code, Americans must pay a gift tax on any item they give away that is worth more than $10,000.

Quoting an IRS spokesman, an article Monday in the New York Times suggested that if a fan gave the 62nd home run ball back to the hitter, a 40 percent tax could be applied to the value of it that exceeds $625,000. A whopping $150,000 tax could be applied if the ball's value was $1 million, which is not out of the question, sports collectors have said.

Pub Date: 9/09/98

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