Since Mark McGwire's 62nd home run of the season never reached the bleachers, the notion of a fan being hit with a gift tax for returning it to the St. Louis slugger apparently will never come into play.

But the IRS chief had already signaled that the gift tax idea, bandied about a day before the record-setting homer, was a wrong-headed one anyway."Sometimes pieces of the tax code can be as hard to understand as the infield fly rule," IRS Commissioner Charles Rossotti said Tuesday. "All I know is that the fan who gives back the home run ball deserves a round of applause, not a big tax bill."

As it turned out, McGwire's 62nd home run ball Tuesday night was picked up by Tim Forneris, a member of the St. Louis Cardinals' grounds crew, who gave it to McGwire.

Since Forneris is an employee of the Cardinals and the home run ball never reached the stands, legally it probably is still the property of Major League Baseball.

Earlier IRS statements indicating the valuable baseball might be subject to taxes even if returned to the slugger drew jeers from the Capitol and the White House.

"I thought it was a joke," said Rep. Bill Archer, R-Texas, chairman of the tax-writing House Ways and Means Committee. White House spokesman Mike McCurry called it "about the dumbest thing I've ever heard in my life."

The top brass at the IRS quickly said fans wouldn't be subject to income taxes or gift taxes for returning a valuable ball, indicating they would treat it like a situation in which a person declines a prize or gives back unsolicited merchandise.

The image of the IRS swooping down on fans who return historic baseballs instead of greedily auctioning them off brought howls from members of Congress. Some promised to introduce legislation ensuring there would be no taxes due.

"It seems un-American to me," said Sen. William Roth, R-Del., chairman of the Senate Finance Committee. "Instead of being commercial about it, the fan is being generous and still being penalized for it. It makes no sense."

Added House Minority Leader Dick Gephardt, D-Mo., a huge Cardinals fan who represents part of St. Louis: "Only the IRS could turn a once-in-a-lifetime event into a once-in-a-lifetime Catch 22."

Major League Baseball owns the balls until one reaches the stands, where it becomes property of whoever manages to latch on to it. Most balls aren't worth much, but home run No. 62 might be worth $1 million or more on the open market.